!!! A+ FILM !!!
If ever a single film encapsulated how much has changed artistically and commercially in Hollywood since the 1930s, it must be Mervyn LeRoy’s startling Warner Bros. drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. The film is not only remarkable for how undiminished and hard-hitting it remains in its immediacy and scathing social consciousness — even good, elemental creations like Paramount’s Underworld and MGM’s The Big House feel comparatively staid — but in the devastating and indisputable case it accidentally makes that America’s most popular and visible artform was once capable of politically charged, rousing communication that has since been shut out of the realm of possibility. The studio films of today have never felt more hopelessly neutered than they do when confronted with a brash force of nature like this. Warner Bros., of course, was widely seen as the primary habitat of earnest, gritty Hollywood populism, and while its ability to probe and shock, to present the Depression-era world of its audience with relative honesty, would be cut at the knees by the Hays code within two years, Chain Gang exists along with the likes of Five Star Final and Employees Entrance as living evidence of an anti-authority, anti-institutional stance that struck a chord then and seems unheard-of now. Can you imagine the response of the Fox News chuds to a film in which a prisoner on a chain gang is the hero, the guards and cops and state prison infracture itself the unequivocal enemies?
The film loosely retells the true story of writer and WWI veteran Robert Burns (renamed James Allen for the film), fashioning itself as a kind of Les Miserables narrative with the prison authorities and the scourge of corrupt chain gang bosses and legal officials standing in for an absent Jalvert. James is wrongfully accused of a robbery — he takes money out of a cash register, but only at gunpoint, while he’s waiting for a promised free hamburger! — and sentenced to ten years on a chain gang in the Deep South. When he can take no more, he manages a daring escape and carves out a life for himself as an engineer and community pillar in Chicago; when he’s recaptured it becomes politically and socially expedient for him to serve further limited time in exchange for a pardon, but he is again swindled and must find his way back out. Like the book, the unflinching film was nearly revolutionary in its exposure of the inexcusable conditions and abuse in such prison environments, and helped initiate a sea change in the American attitude toward prisoners and the criminal justice system, and specifically — though the film doesn’t directly address this — the inherently evil for-profit prison infrastructure, referred to here as “the Prison Commission.” (Burns was subject to penal labor, or convict leasing, from which can be drawn a direct line to today’s private prisons.)
Prison narratives today, even when critical, are comparatively glib; without resorting to Gothic overexaggeration, director LeRoy and screenwriters Howard Green and Brown Holmes present a nightmare world that feels honest and lived-in, and the film’s steadfast suspicion of authority and anti-police, pro-prisoner, even pro-sex work message may owe a great deal to the Depression and the attendant sympathy toward those suffering the desperations of poverty, but have a bold righteousness one can’t help but find refreshing in modern context. (On top of everything that takes place behind bars and in chains, the film features a nonjudgmental, realistic, empathetic scene involving its hero being provided time by a prostitute that would be virtually unimaginable now — for all the social progress we’ve obviously made since 1932, it’s alarming in the best way to see a woman in this profession treated nochalantly as a human being without shaming her or her client.)
Paul Muni worked closely with Burns in crafting his performance; he could be a bit of a ham at times but this is the ideal role for him, just the right balance of articulate angst that leads him on a personal journey after the war in the first place (he doesn’t want to be tied to an office job anymore and wants to do things he actually cares about; when explaining this in a single monologue, the script achieves in a couple of pages what it takes the entirety of Edmond Goulding’s The Razor’s Edge to utterly fail to get across) and everyman bafflement at the plight he’s ultimately handed. More than anything else, his grit and honesty lend credibility to the film’s realism and narrative sweep; we identify deeply with him as the story seems repeatedly to escape his grasp. He thinks on his feet, but never in a way that beggars belief; good and bad fortune are things he seems to stumble into, as they are for most of us. The robbery-raid that lands him in jail is harrowing in its sickening, confusing quickness, an early indicator of the movie’s relentless pacing that takes us to hell and back and to hell again across many sad and wasted years in a matter of an hour and a half, and from that moment on if not earlier, his shock and determination, fear and resignation become ours. For that reason the film is almost overwhelmingly exciting and breathlessly suspenseful, which makes its most horrific moments, the finale in particular, that much stronger; it is a thriller that denies us the relief of escapism.
If I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang has a weak point, it’s in its most Hugo-like sequence, the midsection when Allen changes his name, falls backward into a marriage with a blackmailer and gets a well-paying job as a foreman for a construction company. It doesn’t lack credibility — the events in the film are remarkably similar to those that actually befell Burns, although he became a magazine editor rather than an engineer — except for the characterization of his landlord and eventual wife Marie, whose entrapment of him and apparent role in his capture require her to be too much of a cardboard cutout, whose motives for courting, marrying and finally punishing him are difficult to comprehend outside of misguided suspicion of the mythical female “gold digger.” (Glenda Farrell does have a lot of fun with the part; the film in general is full of small but striking roles for women, somewhat impressively for a 1930s prison movie.) The only other serious flaw is one of missed opportunity; LeRoy briefly touches on the camaraderie felt between white and black prisoners on the chain gang; one scene (memorably parodied by Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run) has the men all singing Negro spirituals together, while the key sequence of Allen’s first escape requires the participation — willing but skeptical, quite understandably so — of a black prisoner strikingly portrayed by character actor Everett Brown, unfortunately uncredited. The scene shows them communicating as equals across racial lines, an almost nonexistent sight in Hollywood movies of this period, with their common status as prisoners clearly evening out the sociological, institutional gaps separating them, a dynamic it would have been fascinating to see further investigated. (Again, a lesser filmmaker, Stanley Kramer, would make a clumsier job of expressing this kind of conflict and change in a feature-length film, The Defiant Ones, than LeRoy does in just a few minutes.)
Like all of the best pre-Code features, Chain Gang inadvertently exposes the inefficiencies not just of Hollywood filmmaking today but of the Hays Code period that began depressingly soon after its release, which certainly circumvented many American films’ attempts at undiluted social relevance for the next two decades. The ending illustrates LeRoy and the writers’ refusal to comfort or forgive their audience, and there would probably not be another studio picture with quite so uncompromisingly bleak a closing moment until roundabout Vertigo. With the chilling closing dialogue — “How do you live?” “I steal!” — and the terrifying image of Muni’s dimly lit, wide-eyed face being swallowed by the darkness illustrating the bleak, insurmountable cycle of the criminal life, the film suggests that neither Allen’s period redefining himself in Chicago nor even his status as a fugitive and escapee changes the bare fact of existence for any prisoner, which is that once you are “inside,” you truly are there for life. It would be impossible to completely crawl out from underneath the brutality we witness. It’s doubly impossible for Allen not to remain a prisoner, even in supposed “freedom.” The living nightmare depicted herein of individuality taken away, of servitude to either systematic oppression or just to fear, makes as strong a case as any film could for the cruelty and ineffectiveness of the system that — don’t kid yourself — we still live under today. Moreover, I submit that this emotional essence of the film would be unchanged if the hero were shown to be guilty. Unless you are sporting a “blue lives matter” bumper sticker, it must surely concern you that we as citizens all live permanently under the system of dumb luck, even if some of us are safer than others: dumb luck that they haven’t caught you yet and decided that you’re next. I hope for your sake that they never do.
16 movies watched in September. Counts:
– 10 new to the database / previously unseen. New total: 2,220.
– 6 revisits, including two (Safety Last!, seen via the Criterion DVD with Amber, and The Toll of the Sea, on the Treasures from American Film Archives disc) already capsuled here, and I elected not to expand those into full reviews for now though I intend to do so someday — the same goes for San Francisco, newly capsuled in this space. However, I did write up two old favorites and reposted an old review from my former setup.
– 3 new-to-this-blog full reviews, two of them new altogether. The semi-rerun is Great Expectations, the David Lean version; I was surprised my 2008 essay required no doctoring or revision. Freaks and Secret Agent are all-new reviews, and in fact my inaugural attempt at writing a full piece on the latter, one of the few Hitchcock features I had only seen one time previously. (Been holding out hope for a better DVD edition all these years; it’s the only one of the Gaumont Six without a decent edition on the market.)
– 11 new or revised capsules, all below!
– The latest distractions from my regular duties are the new Warner Archive Porky Pig 101 five-disc set, the first chronological compilation of Looney Tunes pretty much ever, which I segued into right after completing a journey through the UPA Jolly Frolics and Hubley discs I picked up last year; and a renewed obsession with MST3K, nearly all episodes of which are now available on disc. The Porky set, though, will coincide nicely with the ’30s canon since Porky in Wackyland makes an appearance there.
– 1930s canon: 6 films (4 new). I’m still discombobulated from August and utterly failed to catch up. I’m tentatively trying to still make November the end date for this project, but there’s probably a 50/50 chance I’ll have to delay till the following month. This won’t be the end of the world; I’m following this with a very short one-month interlude project before moving on to the ’40s. At any rate, we did knock out two biggies in the form of the aforementioned Freaks and Secret Agent, plus Medvedkin’s Happiness, Renoir’s La Bete Humaine, Clair’s Le Million and Ozu’s The Only Son; Filmstruck has been such a boon to this project. Remaining, in addition to three shorts that need addressing: 28 films (23 new).
– Best Picture Oscar nominees: 5 films (3 new). Dropped the ball badly on this one, but I’m less broken up about it since it’s so long-term. Revisited Great Expectations and San Francisco (which I got to show to my mom, who’d never seen it), then tackled The Longest Day, The Talk of the Town and my favorite (and most long overdue) new discovery of the month, Bergman’s magnificent Cries and Whispers. Remaining: 176 films (141 new).
– 2010s catchup: Finally a productive month for this, on the other hand, largely because Netflix pulled two movies I’d been trying to make time to watch for a couple of years, which forced my hand. Those were The Double and The Duke of Burgundy, both good and mildly disappointing, and also The Tale of the Princess Kaguya came in the mail; I liked it as much as I ever like the Ghibli stuff.
– I have vacation time in October, and while I’ll be spending some of it seeing family and traveling and trying to get my music blog scheduling problem under control, there should be a lot of downtime as well, and I look forward to maybe doubling down on the ’30s stuff.
On to the capsules… (I know the San Francisco capsule is kinda bullshit, but it does sum it up! And I always liked it, though it used to be one word shorter.)
Happiness (1935, Aleksandr Medvedkin) [r]
Visually majestic sort-of-comedy about a peasant’s search for contentment shot in the lubok style is very different from most of the Soviet propaganda that survives in the cultural memory; its wit and eye-popping moments of freeform avant garde expression will make it irresistible to anyone enamored of silent and early sound film techniques. With a character named Loser, a “horse-wife” and a walking house, this demonstrates an off-kilter Russian humor that’s not exactly Buster Keaton but isn’t a great distance from Buñuel either.
La Bête Humaine (1938, Jean Renoir) [hr]
Troubling, extremely absorbing proto-noir, based on an Émile Zola novel, about the lives of a vengeful, jealous station manager and a mentally ill and lovesick train conductor colliding with sickening inevitability. As usual, Renoir’s feel for people and location is infallible — you feel the soot and the energy of the trains running all throughout, and deeply understand how their mechanical reliability runs against the wildcard of human emotions — and it’s intriguing to see those inclinations applied to a rather nasty and nihilistic thriller with no real heroes, and many breaches of trust with one another and with the audience.
San Francisco (1936, W.S. Van Dyke) [hr]
(Revisit; no change.) Holy shit!
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013, Isao Takahata) [r]
Lovingly presented folktale, overcoming Studio Ghibli’s usual arbitrary plotting with a sense of ancient lore and a touchingly compassionate center, with a wonderfully distinctive, minimalist watercolor design. It explores the life of a girl with supernatural origins who is discovered in the forest by a bamboo cutter, who then seeks out a title for her; easy, unforced humor and class commentary arises from his, his wife’s and eventually an entire world’s difficulty with comprehending that material desire isn’t the essence of her dreams. A much more humane and multifaceted film than Grave of the Fireflies, though there’s still some emotional distance.
The Longest Day (1962, Ken Annakin/Andrew Marton/Bernhard Wicki) [r]
Star-studded, meticulously detailed account of the D-Day invasion from nearly all possible angles deserves credit for not being a bravura cheerleading of wartime violence, and for building to an anticlimax. Despite several harrowing setpieces, there’s a lot of arrhythmic editing and a decent amount of the dialogue is poorly written and read, a weird clash of old-Hollywood sensibilities with the film’s gritty ambitions. These problems fade somewhat as the excitement of the impending action mounts, and the battles themselves demonstrate outstanding camerawork and gargantuan-scale blocking whose logitisics are difficult to even fathom.
Le Million (1931, René Clair) [hr]
Clair’s delightful musical comedy is more charming than funny, but almost Lubitschian in its sheer buoyancy. René Lefèvre stars as a philanderer who robs from Peter to pay Paul and has a Paris full of creditors and a handful of women coming home to roost all at once, when the news comes that he and his friend have won the lottery. A madly convoluted chase follows as he seeks to recover the missing coat that houses his ticket, and there’s no point trying to explain the rest. The song sequences are lovely, the whole film ceaselessly inventive and alive; Clair communicates the sheer joy of unburdened youth like few other directors.
The Double (2013, Richard Ayoade) [r]
Gorgeous-looking, witty and well-acted nightmare from writer-director Ayoade is reminiscent of Welles’ The Trial in its tirelessly inventive inscrutability, taking a Dostoyevsky novella for inspiration. Jesse Eisenberg gets thrown into a cornucopia of hopelessly thankless, hellish work and Manic Pixie Dream Girls, his bleak existence upended all the more when his uber-Alpha doppelgänger shows up. The level of visual detail here, and the fun Ayoade has dooming his protagonist, forgives some of the half-baked avenues the story takes. Wallace Shawn is hilarious as the boss in the boy’s unfathomably depressing office.
Cries and Whispers (1972, Ingmar Bergman) [hr]
Stunning psychodrama, one of the best of Bergman’s color films, functions as a meditation on death and grief as much as an oppressive fever dream. Sven Nykvist’s camera and Marik Vos-Lundh’s eye-popping set design brilliantly, almost garishly reflect the intensity of feeling among three sisters and a maid (Kari Sylwan) holed up in a mansion as one of them (Harriet Andersson) wastes away from illness, watched over with obligatory compassion while relationships fray. Bergman delves into these disparate personalities and shows himself and his cast unafraid of the rawest and most unfiltered kind of emotion.
The Only Son (1936, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
The outwardly straightforward story of a boy whose mother makes sacrifices to ensure his education, but who grows up in fear of disappointing her, balloons out to become a challenge to the personal philosophies and convictions of anyone watching. The film is free of easy answers, and as ever, Ozu’s beautifully still moments are steeped in their place and time — here contemporary as of the film’s release — but seem to sing out with both universal emotion and the specific tics of their characters and performances. The entire cast proves adept at exploring the unsaid, even as their polite smiles and bows only subside a handful of times.
The Duke of Burgundy (2014, Peter Strickland) [r]
Formally astounding drama set in a mysterious, insular world populated solely by entomologists and sex-bed manufacturers revolves around a lesbian couple in a master-slave relationship and (hilariously) the master’s frustration with the extremely specific, ultimately exhausting requirements of her partner. Strickland allows an emotional center to shine through all the wicked cleverness — with flights of dreamlike fancy and a well-placed Brakhage homage — but while the film’s nonchalant attitude toward both kink and its all-female cast is praiseworthy, it slips out of our lives without a sense of real resolution or satisfaction.
The Talk of the Town (1942, George Stevens)
Wildly uneven, plotty “comedy” about a wrongly jailed anarchist hiding in the attic of an ex who happens to have a potential Supreme Court justice staying as a tenant. Stevens is uncomfortable with his characters’ interactions, filling the frame with off-putting closeups and unintentionally funny emotional flourishes while fumbling his attempts at slapstick. The script’s busy wordiness indicates its authors thought they were really on a roll, and you truly feel sorry for them. Cary Grant and Jean Arthur are wonderful but they’re drowned out entirely by Ronald Colman, hamming it up as the highbrow lawyer whose beard is treated like the Monolith from 2001.
Blessed with unprecedented authority over his material while working at British Gaumont after providing them with two consecutive massive hits, Alfred Hitchcock took a large professional risk in 1936 by making Secret Agent and Sabotage. However strongly one can make the case that Hollywood made Hitchcock a more sophisticated director, capable of so many slickly presented nightmares, these devious, downbeat entries in his filmography offer the opportunity to see the director do things he would never attempt in America — the moral messiness, the sense of futility, the subtle but bleak political messaging — and their uncompromising pessimism is a far cry indeed from the crowd-pleasing tendencies of the works that enabled them, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps. Sure, those films felt dangerous — Hitchcock’s specialty was always thrillers that scar by making their characters and events seem oppressively real, no matter how grand and far-fetched — but they were not permeated with outright dread, which is what ultimately sets Secret Agent and Sabotage apart, and what makes them so fascinating.
They’re the sort of eccentric, highly personal and commercially disappointing* interlude he would tend later in life to either bitterly defend (like Rich and Strange and The Trouble with Harry) or quietly downplay (like Vertigo), and in these cases he was not inclined to expend energy going to bat for the more provocative of his reputation-defining late 1930s thrillers, but watching the films you can’t ignore how vitalized and passionate he’d become as a filmmaker at this point, and you come to suspect that he was perhaps overly influenced by critical dismissal of these efforts. The reputation of Sabotage is particularly senseless and unfair, but Secret Agent too is a gift, as entertaining and worthy of consideration as any of the “Gaumont Six” (the aforementioned ’30s thrillers that really made his name internationally). This was fueled perhaps more than anything by the incredibly well-matched long-term collaboration with screenwriter Charles Bennett, who in Secret Agent — marginally the more conventional of the two films — works to very faintly but ingeniously adapt a series of semi-autobiographical W. Somerset Maugham stories. (Ever the mild narcissist, Maugham used fiction as a way of boasting about his involvement in the British war effort during the 1910s.)
Thematically and structurally, Secret Agent resembles certain later Hitchcocks about espionage, such as Foreign Correspondent and the dreaded Topaz, but it doesn’t sacrifice the key element that made his previous film an obvious turning point in his career: the audience’s strong identification with its lead character, in this case two lead characters, for Secret Agent really has two protagonists. John Gielgud is the Maugham stand-in, an author and Naval captain named Brodie commissioned by the government — who’ve faked his death — to intercept and assassinate a German spy in the third year of World War I (making this also one of the very few Hitchcock films that is a period piece). This is heavier cloak-and-dagger stuff than usual for Hitchcock, and an author whose works are well-known is a bit less of an “everyman” than we’re used to, but the story as a whole simply wouldn’t work if Brodie, renamed Mr. Ashenden for the assignment, were not some kind of an outsider. That he’s just a bit out of his depth keeps this from turning into some sort of glorified James Bond dress rehearsal. He is, however, somewhat improbably assigned a fake wife in the form of Madeleine Carroll (a 39 Steps holdover), who’s bloodthirsty and anxious for the thrill of killing an enemy agent; unusually for the female foil in a picture like this (Hitchcock typically didn’t go for this kind of romance), she is onscreen nearly as much as Gielgud and many scenes center around her own rude awakening and reactions to the violent events that unfold — indeed, she’s on the verge of ending the story herself when a train accident intervenes. The pair’s attraction to and eventual engagement to one another is ludicrous in the abstract, but it lends itself to an intriguing career-life conflict, one of many in Hitchcock but probably the only one born of bloodshed. They are also joined by a contract killer known as “the General” (Peter Lorre, again a Hitchcock veteran, he of The Man Who Knew Too Much) whose psychosis and womanizing render him both a crucial part of the assignment and the major wildcard ensuring that nothing will play out routinely. As the story develops, our trust in the trio quickly fades, replaced by a fearful recognition of their frailty; thin leads are followed, false conclusions drawn, and the sheer ineptitude of the spies is breathtaking, leading not to comedy but to a tragic reminder of the ghoulishness of murder, whether it’s out of patriotic duty or not.
Something else is going on here as well, though, and it’s all but unique for films of the time, at least in the thriller genre: Brodie is filled with apprehension before he even learns the details of his mission, and once its grim reality — that he is to identify and kill someone based on scant evidence — sets in, he seems to exhibit a kind of emotional shutdown. He verbalizes more than once how his awful duty actually tortures him, and we learn repeatedly that his instincts of what a nasty business this is are correct, most notably when he and the General carry out the task of slaughtering their enemy, only to then quickly discover that he was incorrectly identified, an ordinary man in the wrong place at the wrong time — in effect, normally the person who’d be at the center of one of Hitchcock’s films**. With his systematic view of the way his later films worked, Hitchcock would probably have cited this is an error, taking sympathy too much away from the “heroes,” who have now committed an unprovoked crime for which they won’t be punished, but in truth this ends up making a strong point about the confusion and violence of war itself, presented as a series of impossible choices made over typically imaginary borders and boundaries that harm everyone in their orbit and inevitably result in the needless killing of innocent people. A few years hence, such ideals and such open doubts about war and nationalism could not be baked into a commercial film, and not just because of the coming world war — the conflicted hero, at least in a film that bends on patriotic action and means to attract a wide swath of people, would become virtually extinct soon enough.
The four major cast members are perfect for pieces of such an ambiguous, despairing whole, which still injects plenty of sharp humor, much of it from Lorre, who was seldom funny before this and seldom as funny afterward. Gielgud, while ideal in a Daniel Craig sort of way, is probably the weakest of the three leads simply because his consternation, well-written and well-played though it is, surfaces rarely by design, and he must spend the rest of the the time maintaining a certain intentional duplicity. When the time comes for him to fall in love, the character as written seems ripe for fulfilling his emotional needs, but Gielgud isn’t quite as good at exploring his tender side as he is at feigning stoicism. (Robert Donat in The 39 Steps more believably explored unstated feelings, though in that film there was no outright romance, at least until the final moments.) Still, he’s credible throughout the film and it’s fun to watch him full of such youth and vigor. Carroll, on the other hand, is magnificent, brimming with wit and nuance she couldn’t explore in her far more emotionally limited role in The 39 Steps; Mrs. Ashendon’s flirting, thrill-seeking, sassiness and eventual falling in love all seem to have been defined well and completely by star and director in concert, and it’s quite a pity Hitchcock did not work with her again — she seems the perfect prototype of the Hitchcock Blonde. Meanwhile, she’s given a secondary love interest in Robert Young, who plays the cuckolded cad all too well and permits us the rare pleasure of seeing someone we can’t stand for unrelated reasons turn out to be the villain (kudos for the long-payoff joke that has him faking incompetence at a German lesson early on); it’s surely unintentional but his entire role, and his relationship to Carroll in the narrative, serves as an early warning against the modern-day Nice Guy.
Lastly, Peter Lorre was probably never in a stranger role, which is saying a lot, and he approaches it with incredible gusto; Hitchcock seems to be head over heels for him, judging by the way he films an incredible extended furniture-throwing rant (about not being “provided” a wife, as his partner was), and one of Hitchcock’s few melodramatic, curtain call-like death scenes. Lorre throws himself into this and leaves behind most traces of his later-traditional persona; from his Hollywood films, you’d never imagine he could believably portray a heavily promiscuous but highly skilled hitman, but his General is so vivid, funny and frightening — the coldness in Lorre’s eyes when he’s forced periodically to deal with Mrs. Ashendon’s hesitancy is truly unnerving — it may be, aside from M, the best surviving evidence of Lorre’s actual genius as a film performer. That he does not survive the film is further evidence of its remarkable pessimism, though it’s easy to sort of wish his fate also befell one of the two actual stars, which Truffaut and Hitchcock incorrectly remembered occurring in the former’s interview book. Still, as mindlessly happy endings go, the closing montage of victories in an utterly facile, pointlessly deadly war and a shot of a note from the couple assuring “NEVER AGAIN” does at least provide some late-breaking ambivalence about war and murder; it’s a relief not to see nationalist pride positioned as an excuse for every terrible action for a change.
This being Hitchcock, it seems nearly superfluous to mention that the film looks beautiful, even if the film is easily the talkiest of the Gaumont Six; the sets recreate Switzerland, Hitchcock’s motivation for making the film and setting a chase scene in a chocolate factory, lovingly. The seams that remained visible in The Man Who Knew Too Much are now, as in The 39 Steps, completely absent, even if this movie can’t be quite as absorbingly gorgeous as Steps. Bernard Knowles’ wonderful photography is well-suited, offering a tense contrast between the lovely setting and the acerbic darkness of the script; superficially, these first three of the Gaumont Six are all black & white thrillers with (at least) semi-exotic settings, but examining them more carefully, they couldn’t look more different, with The Man Who Knew Too Much full of horror and shadows enhanced by its scrappiness, The 39 Steps so kinetic and quick it seems to always be in motion, and this film casting a skilled, unblinking eye on atrocities in micro. Technically, each has been better than the last, a trend that would continue all the way through The Lady Vanishes. Secret Agent also marks storytelling inroads that would have far-reaching implications for Hitchcock’s work; it features his most impeccably staged and edited suspense sequences to date. The cathedral scene, wherein Ashendon and the General wonder why their contact isn’t responding to their signal while a one-note organ blares ominously in the background, is kind of a moody reprise of the Tabernacle of the Sun sequence in The Man Who Knew Too Much, but presented even more effectively. In the chocolate factory, he generates remarkable fear and trepidation from nothing more than covert actions of slipping pieces of paper into boxes, the making of vague phone calls, and Lorre’s indescribable face; the mathematical precision of it all is uncanny.
The most memorable moment comes after the agents believe they have found their man, thanks to the very circumstantial discovery of a button at a murder scene; Hitchcock is masterfully deceptive in letting us see each clue, each piece to the puzzle of the forming picture, as they and we come to believe that an unassuming dog owner (Percy Marmont) with a kindly but secretive wife at the hotel is the elusive German spy. On shady pretext that could make anyone cheer in its balletic naturalism, the General and Ashendon manage to convince him to join them on a mountain climb, which is where they eliminate him. During the decisive afternoon Hitchcock memorably cross-cuts between the mountain, an increasingly nervous Ashendon (who eventually walks away and watches through a telescope when the murder is committed), and his “wife,” who’s looking after — distracting — the old lady and their dog during the climb, while unbearable tension, the unmistakable sense that something is wrong, mounts in the room. When the man is killed off-camera — killed, essentially, by film editing — we feel a sense of strange relief, which is unceremoniously destroyed when the Britons are brought a coded message during dinner, warning them belatedly that they are chasing the wrong person. Carroll is devastated, Ashendon weary, and the General smiles and laughs and moves on, like it either doesn’t matter that he just killed an innocent man or like he does it all the time. This moment, so elegantly expressive of the cruel price of war, takes the risk of completely alienating the audience populated by nice British dog-owners, which it probably did, and is all the better for it.
The crux is that Secret Agent‘s bleakness isn’t just situational, it’s ideological — a profound treatise on what an ungodly mess humanity makes of everything, and especially the stupidity of war; all the careful planning, all the ciphers and signals, all the supposed moral righteousness of one’s home country cannot mask over the madness of killing even one’s “enemy,” something that comes to haunt Carroll particularly as she watches a guy that annoyed her to bits but whom she still kind of liked exposed as a cunning German informant with multiple homicides under his belt. Hitchcock set him up as the foolishly overconfident comic relief, so we’re somewhat thrown as well; we’re even slightly disappointed that the outwardly kind older man who was killed by our heroes was not a spy, because we saw all the evidence right along with the cast. This indicates Hitchcock and Bennett’s suspicion of “expertise,” at least when human lives are in the balance, and they take every opportunity to point out the government and military’s basic incompetence and aloofness, starting with the very first scene in which an official can’t seem to figure out how to dismount a coffin after a staged funeral. Somewhat akin to the way the murder scene in Torn Curtain displayed how unrealistic the killings we witness in cinema typically are, Secret Agent deglamorizes state-sanctioned violence and espionage as just a bunch of barely capable fools fumbling in the dark. For not the last time, Hitchcock later shows an officer dictating the actions of his charges like chess pieces from a comfortable distance — getting a steam bath here, chowing down on fried chicken in Notorious — which is just another angle on the armchair warmongers in All Quiet on the Western Front. Once again, all this gets in just under the deadline for British film with an explicit antiwar message or an explicit counter to empty patriotism, really by necessity, but its arguments are all the more potent and chilling in light of the cloud then forming over the continent.
What lingers in your mind after seeing the Gaumont Six? Of course their cautionary paranoia, of course their sense of a vivid Europe despite being largely created on sets, of course their introduction of Hitchcock as the cinema’s greatest teller of human stories regardless of genre. Secret Agent is almost certainly the least celebrated of these films, if not the least viscerally pleasing (that would be Sabotage, which we’ll come to in a few weeks), but its best moments are no less striking or sweeping than the shootout that closes The Man Who Knew Too Much or the chase across the Scottish highlands in The 39 Steps, or even the unexpectedly bloody climax of The Lady Vanishes. These six films are as remarkable for what unites them — a breathless, persistent energy — as what sets each of them apart, and Secret Agent deserves renewed recognition (it’s the only one of the six not to be recently restored and redistributed, still available in America only as a gray market DVD) as a progressive expression of the cost of war as well as a cracking, if dispiriting, thriller. It should be seen by anyone who loves Hitchcock, and certainly anyone who loves The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes.
[* Commercially disappointing only when compared to The 39 Steps, which was an international smash and arguably changed the British film industry.]
[** Basically, I’m saying that the General killed Roger Thornhill.]
!!! A+ FILM !!!
The story goes that Irving Thalberg, MGM’s young mastermind producer, commissioned Tod Browning and a couple of writers to create the “ultimate horror film” in the early 1930s, following the massive success of Frankenstein and Browning’s own Dracula for Universal. Reportedly he was shaken and distressed by the script that Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon then turned in, a vicious, confrontational screed against prejudice centered around a travelling circus sideshow, but to his eternal credit he stood by Freaks throughout its production, despite demanding a somewhat lighter tone and relegating it to B-status (as evidenced by the lack of any major stars, though several were at one time associated with the project). While horrific test screenings forever compromised it, the reward is one of the most distinctive, beloved, beautiful and terrifying of all Hollywood films, a masterpiece that flies completely in the face of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s reputation as the studio built for staid, opulent narratives like Grand Hotel (made in the same year!). It doesn’t seem an accident that the film has now outlasted so many, perhaps most, of the entertainments once commonly associated with the grandest, glitziest studio of all.
We will never get to see Freaks as its creators intended. The original ninety-minute film has been lost for decades, its secrets permanently left to the imagination (though complete screenplays do survive); as disappointing as this is, it may add to the sense that the film is profoundly effective as a horror picture because it shows us just enough, and at just the right moments. A more fortuitous element to its continued relevance and ability to shock comes from its entrance into the world during the brief window between the introduction of sound and that of the Hays Code; it’s impossible to fathom its directness, violence and suggestiveness appearing a couple of years later, and the uncompromised nature of the remaining footage — as well as the air of mystery that comes from the knowledge of nearly a third of it being gone, and the urgent pacing it inherits by becoming a 64-minute film — results in a haunting, tormenting, challenging work like nothing else from the studio era.
Freaks‘ agelessness results not just from the atypical intrigue of its subject matter but from its status as almost a purely classical drama of jealousy and revenge, overrun with raw and unusually intimate emotion. Though the top-billed actors are Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams, playing a couple of nice but ordinary circus performers, they’re as incidental to the story as the young lovers are to any given Marx Brothers film. What’s really going on here is the one-sided love affair between a smitten little person, the secretly wealthy Hans (Harry Earles of the Doll Family, later a member of the Lollipop Guild in The Wizard of Oz) and the mocking beauty Cleopatra, well-wrought by the smirking Olga Baclanova in one of her last film roles, who laughs behind the poor gentleman’s back while reaching for his inheritance along with her actual lover, the strong-man Hercules (Henry Victor). Not surprisingly, the two villains overshadow the two “regular” heroes of the cast, and Baclanova and Victor have a surprisingly robust, easy chemistry that would — in a lesser movie — make them the provocatively engaging primary attraction. But this is not an example of a movie in which we reserve some fascination or affection for the villains; the screenplay is so effective that the pair is made to seem both realistically drawn and convincingly evil, their cheerful bullying all too familiar, carefully justifying bit by bit the ultimate actions taken against them. Hans fails to heed the warnings of his friends and his former fiancée (portrayed by Harry’s sister Daisy, which lends an appropriately detached and somber quality to their scenes together, making it feel as though we’re seeing something we shouldn’t) about Cleopatra but quickly learns of her plans to poison him, and participates as the formerly open-armed band of sideshow “freaks” rally and ruin his new bride in the most horrific, completely appropriate fashion. (They mutilated Hercules in the original print as well, and the act itself survives, but we never see the results; perhaps this is a boon, since it allows us to imagine his current state is too terrible to be shown to us.) The shot of the stunted, destroyed Cleopatra — shown for a crowd of circus attendees to gawk at, a delicious final irony — only lasts a few seconds before the camera and/or editor seems to assume we can’t take anymore. It’s partially true; it truly is a sickening, magnificently disturbing image… but our pleasure in seeing Cleopatra in that state is so rich that we are left somehow wanting more, which in the end may be Freaks‘ greatest gift to us: the discovery of how much of a dark thirst for cathartic revenge lurks inside its viewers.
Despite the concessions he ultimately made to Thalberg and MGM, even before the many infamous cuts were made, there can be no mistaking that Browning is the operative voice behind this film, that he was the correct choice to make it, and that it’s the production he was born to bring to the world — even if his career never truly recovered from the commercial disaster and the blow to his reputation. Browning had come of age in circus environments, working for a time as a clown and a vaudeville performer prior to his coming to work for D.W. Griffith at Biograph. His sublime Lon Chaney vehicle The Unknown illustrated his sympathy for the sideshow outsider and his love of sheer unhinged grotesquerie, both prefiguring Freaks. But whereas The Unknown used the freakshow as a jumping-off point for a blunt foray into nightmare psychosis, hinging on the lust and deception of a phony amputee, Freaks is much more purposeful and focused in its message, however harrowing it remains. Divorced from the studio-bound excess of the usual Thalberg production, Browning demonstrates his knowledge and love of the world he’s depicting in virtually every frame of the movie, apart from a few of the less inspired dialogue sequences — the lonely image of boxcars pulling out of town on a rainy night will call forward chilling memories of Disney’s Pinocchio for many viewers, but that film was still nearly a decade in the future at this point. It’s often mentioned that Browning’s technical expertise was no match for James Whale’s, an inevitable comparison because both made massively popular horror films for Universal in the early 1930s, but none of the tentative messiness of Dracula (with which Browning himself was unsatisfied despite its commercial impact) is in evidence at all in Freaks, and if we were able to see the complete film, presumably even its scattered technical flaws of jump cuts and uneven structure would smooth out. What’s even more clearly in evidence, though, is Browning’s deep affection for the people in his film; he’s not just telling a story, he’s documenting lives and a lifestyle that he probably sensed would never be so brutally and lovingly captured by anyone else.
The argument of whether Freaks was an act of exploitation or humanism has raged for the better part of a century, volleyed back and forth by critics, the public, the studio, and the film’s own performers. (MGM’s publicity department didn’t help by releasing a poster with the dreadfully schlocky, Ed Wood-like tagline “Can a full grown women truly love a midget?”) All of the above initially seemed to come out strongly against the very idea of the picture, let alone the execution. As popular as the sideshows of Barnum & Bailey and their ilk then were, it seems that the cinematic audience and the circus audience failed to overlap significantly, so that it was seen as too distressing and frightening to actually see the disabled and deformed performers on camera. Some critics inevitably charged that the film treated its actors as product to be gazed upon in dehumanizing horror; and the experience of the film’s release, if not its shooting, was so traumatic that some members of Browning’s cast later denounced the film (though others did the opposite and most never spoke of it at all, at least partially because it did not become a particularly celebrated film until many of them had died). A cynical case could probably be made that by climaxing with the deliberate disfiguring of a woman by a horde of “freaks,” Browning and the movie are arguing both that these people are a dangerous, tightly-knit band capable of terrible violence and that any break from the physical norm is itself inherently bad and terrifying. This requires an adamant refusal, however, to take the film’s script on good faith and to trust in Browning’s own compassion.
Some may find it easy to look past the film’s lack of condescension for its characters and their obvious, deeply moving bond, captured so elegantly in an early scene of a group of them playing and celebrating with unguarded enthusiasm by a French lake — when they are confronted by a pair of abusive strangers, their caregiver Madame Tetrallini memorably chides her “children” for letting their fear show — and in the iconic, remarkably unforced wedding banquet scene during which they chant that they are poised to accept Hans’ new wife as one of them, only to have their show of goodwill literally thrown in their faces. This very determination to display the members of the sideshow as real and complicated people is likely what has riled up many viewers and made them uncomfortable, because there is little attempt to sugarcoat their natural behaviors or interactions or to focus strictly on their professional lives. (Perhaps the one sour note is the incomplete depiction of how often the likes of the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, and performers like the “stork woman” Elizabeth Green, were opportunistically used for entertainment and denied their own agency; and, of course, the fact that we only see people like this in movies when they are about “freakshows.”) If Browning had not used actual “freaks,” or if he tried to constrain them into more traditional character roles, the film undoubtedly would be more “comfortable” for many, and not nearly as vital, memorable or moving. If he attempted to spell out his moralistic argument against surface judgment and prejudice in self-righteous dialogue, he might have created a wrongheaded artifact of liberal cinema in the Stanley Kramer vein. Instead, by simply presenting reality — or at least a supernatural drama rooted in traces of reality — he relies on the audience’s compassion to tell the rest of the story. Some were unwilling to stretch themselves that far.
The state of unguided discomfort — of being uncertain how one is “supposed” to react to what is onscreen — is rare in classic Hollywood, for all its virtues, and Browning is bold to leave us so often in that holding pattern, for it forces us to locate our own moral responses to the story and to the “freaks” themselves (with the gradual revelation that the supposedly normal and able-bodied Hercules and Cleopatra are the “freaks” of the title, not the variously decent, sophisticated, innocent and open-minded sideshow performers), and feeds our thirst to see their warm, unstated mutual trust vindicated against the cruel insiders attempting to infiltrate and corrupt them. It permits the film to be as unforgiving and angry as necessary — with the added attraction of its uncharted, “forbidden” quality — while encouraging us to rejoice in its gruesome resolution. The new viewer expects Freaks to be troubling and disturbing because of its subject matter, its age and the now-obscure lives of its inhabitants, but in fact it’s the story itself that makes it linger in the imagination thereafter.
An effect of Browning’s unsentimental, unforced approach to his cast is that Freaks turns out to serve as something of a semi-incidental documentary, capturing the voices, physical presences and performance styles of numerous unusual talents who would (by and large) otherwise never be captured on film to be seen and remembered by generations forever to come. Whether one attempts to argue or not that the inherent act of filming the sideshow’s participants is in a sense an exploitation of them, they were still artists and performers with actual careers, and it’s a tribute to them and a benefit to us that we are now able to see, with relatively little contrivance. (For the most part, Browning appears to just plant his camera and doesn’t require excessive flair from the cast as actors; those with a lot of dialogue to deliver tend to be stilted, and it’s not to the film’s detriment because it’s strong evidence that he didn’t wish to meddle excessively.) A perusal through the available biographical data for all of the performers in the film is quite the roller-coaster ride, full of tragically sad chronicles of abuse and loveless neglect (and in fairness, this is largely true of film actors in general, to a lesser extent), but also the occasional note of surprising triumph: Prince Randian, the Guyanese limbless man who can roll and light a cigarette with his mouth, fathered four children in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and lived to age 63. The long-lived microcephalic Schlitzie appears to have truly loved performing and his visage became a beloved icon. The Doll Family enjoyed nearly a century of success and financial security. Perhaps most fascinating of all is the story of the conjoined Hilton twins, who at the time Freaks was made had just divorced themselves from crooked management and a lifetime of what amounted to indentured servitude. The pair kept performing and wrote a book about their lives, later the source of a musical, and eventually made an exploitation B-picture in the early 1950s, after which they started independently touring. On one such tour they were left stranded in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they picked up jobs as produce clerks at a grocery store and ironically at last found there some measure of dignity and community, at least by the accounts of their friends in the area, and worked there until their death in 1969. But the list goes on, from the classically trained “skeleton man” Peter Robinson to the “half-boy” Johnny Eck to armless Frances O’Connor, all remarkable, their images permanently and deservedly burned into cinematic history.
The assumption that Tod Browning would intend Freaks as a malicious use of these eccentric and differently-abled actors to be shown as figures of grotesque, visceral terror is completely incompatible with the actual content of the film, which is — for better or worse — a celebration of both these performers and the secretive, shielding bond they share. Browning made other superb films, and there were other intoxicating horror films in the 1930s, but nowhere else can you smell the sawdust and feel your shoes sinking in the mud so palpably, in such a world apart from the traditional artifice of MGM’s typical output. The horror is not in the so-called “freaks,” at least not the “freaks” we assume are being referred to; and the horror is not in the atmosphere, which evokes realistic sleaze rather than fear. The horror is not even in the revenge taken, which while clearly the stuff of nightmares is ultimately a turn to celebrate. The absolute horror, so beautifully executed and subtly ingrained in both the narrative and in the lives of its cast, is in the all too believable capacity of human beings to torment and abuse those who they assume cannot fight back, and in the sumptuous irony that this very assumption — at least in this throttling moment — is spectacularly incorrect. The butchering, the years of infamy, don’t matter; if any cruel person in the world sleeps uneasily after seeing Freaks, Browning has won the day.
Filmmaking as art boils down to shadows. The opening moments of this tale as told by barking conceptualist David Lean are populated with lyricism and a virtuosity with the natural and unnatural. There is light and there is fog, there are trees and graves, there is manipualtion and filtering and a brooding isolation, and there is a boy. He is not alone. All of the above elements and the many others that will later be introduced offer their own oppressive hostility. There is a certain easy subjectivity to the script’s interpretation; the cows talk, in a moment so surreal and out of place it can be declared either the best or worst moment of the picture, and the world, everything in it, looms like withered old hands reaching out to threat. Through it all, as perhaps the greatest hundred pages of prose ever written — the first few chapters of Great Expectations — are acted out with moody classiness, one person amid the party of dozens fully understands and is sympathetic to Dickens, and that person is cinematographer Guy Green, who deservedly won an Academy Award.
That isn’t to suggest that herein lies no respect to the text courtesy Lean, the team of a whopping five screenwriters plus plenty of wholesale excerpts, or the generally able team of actors. There is, in fact, too much respect, much of it misguided. No British film company (Rank in this case) would want to give anything but the most lavish, even slavish treatment to Boz. Hollywood had their take on Expectations twelve years earlier; the first audience review I found upon a rudimentary Google search snarls “This 1934 travesty is about as accurate a realization of Dickens’ original vision as Free Willy is a realization of Melville’s vision for Moby-Dick.” To the end, though, there is more to making a movie than filming a book. For Lean as for David O. Selznick, who took the notion to an appealing drug-charged level of insanity, the concept of cinema as separate world is continually violated. Selznick didn’t want to change anything that came from Margaret Mitchell’s pen because he feared it would hurt his bottom line; what Lean’s motivation was I’m not fit to suggest, but this violation leads to a compromise of both film and text that is unacceptable. Every time a truncated two-sentence extract from Dickens’ expertly developed, extraordinarily sophisticated first-person narrative is spliced in as needless voiceover, Lean is not just distilling the essence of the world he wishes to light up on celluloid but is defying the notion that his paycheck comes to him for the creation of art. His static flourishes of opulence are as programmed and impersonal here as on all of his major films; they are afforded more respect than a standard MGM musical time-waster only for technical reasons.
When you have the skeleton of Dickens to work with, though, it is difficult to really lose, and for this reason no aggression toward the project as it stands is worth energy. If third-graders acted out this story it would be compelling. The sheer magic of Dickens’ almost maddeningly perfect plot structure is impossible to dilute, regardless of a director’s naked absence of passion. Not for lack of trying — the hypnotic sequence that begins the film, flawless aside from the off-rhythm introduction of Magwitch, takes a hold that is broken and betrayed by a messy, crowded second act which attempts to justify too many things without allowing the given plot turns room to breathe. Whereas the early portions of the movie acceptably capture the darkness of the world in which Pip lives, in and away from the marshes, with tantalizing hints of the subtext Dickens had time to investigate that no movie ever could, the middle third rushes through emotions and change with abandon. Pip is in love with Estella, we are told, but that’s the only way we know it. If you turned the sound off, or even if you simply took away the voiceover, you wouldn’t know he was interested in her or anything else. Pip has grown snobbish in his attitude toward Joe, he informs us, even though his actual tone and attitude toward Joe seem no different, and the only evidence the film can offer is a bit of awkward comic business about Joe dropping his hat into the tea. Estella is heartless and cruel as an adult, but we only know this because that’s what everyone says. Estella is getting married, and Pip doesn’t want her to, but you could freeze from the total lack of tension, passion, and interest in the air when all this comes to light. They may as well speak in monosyllables.
I love this book, I care about it like I do few others, so I can thrill in the aesthetic facets, especially casting. There are errors: Although Tony Wager is an effectively moody and scared young Pip, he grows up to be John Mills, too bland, meek, and pasty to really exist, certainly to be the sympathetic but resentful, confused, and withdrawn Pip of the novel. Most of his distinguishing characteristics have been whitewashed; we have no feeling whatever for a dark side to his character, or indeed to much of the world as he sees it. He is not a complicated man, and he carries none of the past along with him until Magwitch appears at his door. Without a good actor at the center of this production, it cannot fully succeed; in this respect, Lean’s Expectations is a disaster, but it does transcend this to a degree. Valerie Hobson doesn’t help, though, as an Estella so dull one wonders how she could inspire such irrational affection. Bizarrely, Jean Simmons brilliantly and menacingly portrays the child Estella and gives her a teasing eroticism, mischief, and believability that is nowhere in the adult version of her character. As in Black Narcissus, with nothing more than a raised eyebrow she can inspire awe, and she is Estella, as no one else ever has been or ever will be.
The performance of the picture, and in a sense the film, belongs to Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham; she is staggeringly great, and offers so much to the characterization of Havisham — beautifully defined here as an alluring and loathsome hybrid of Cleopatra and Mrs. Danvers, and a darkly complex woman not typically done justice even by the best film and TV adaptations — that one wants nothing so much as for the entire film to be about her. During the slowest parts of the movie, only she picks things up; the miserably rigid scene of Estella announcing her proposal is embarrasing precisely because neither of the leads are acting and Hunt, who has essentially nothing to do for the duration of the exchange, walks away with the moment. The eyes drift toward her involuntarily; she is the only interesting thing in the room, and she is much more than merely interesting. If everything else in the movie were horrible, she would make it worth seeing.
Alec Guinness shows up as Herbert Pocket, a character who outside of his admittedly lively introduction has no function in the story without all of the details in Dickens’ midsection intact; he should have been cut from the movie, and Guinness doesn’t supply anything that ought to have changed anyone’s mind. Of the supporting characters, Mr. Jaggers is perhaps the most well-cast; Francis Sullivan had played the role before and seems to have been born for the part. He offers considerable comic relief that is politely enough rendered, although only the encounter with Mr. Wemmick’s “Aged P” carries a convincing level of sharp Dickensian absurdity. Lean is too nervous to submit anything more raucous.
He isn’t too nervous, however, to suddenly — forty minutes before we close up shop — begin directing a different movie. Up to now, all the concerns about who plays what character are purely intellectual, especially for someone who knows the novel back to front. Unfortunately, the same goes for the elements of the movie that really are remarkable, from the elegant photography to the magnificent production design; Satis House, it must be said, is a landmark in art direction and may be one of the most impressive, haunting sets ever put together. But this, too, is incidental; no amount of good casting or technical virtue can make a story work that doesn’t, and the bare fact is that Dickens’ storytelling is not suited to this form. Literature as film is tricky business, and for all the rewriting that must have gone on, no one bothered to make Great Expectations work narratively as a movie. The best example of the problem lies in the way that in, for instance, the scenes that deal briefly with Pip’s relationship with his sister and the other adults around him, the conflict of a blacksmith’s son within the decadent Satis House, or the silent rebuking of Joe, all of the deeper themes of the novel — class, misery, manipulation, family, unrequited love, maturity, the simple act of doing what must be done — are hinted at like the proverbial glasses on the floor, but never, ever pay off.
All of this is true until the last act of the film. From the chilling moment that Magwitch reappears, Lean finds his voice and suddenly becomes daring and experimental, plunging into the narrative with icy, empowered force, telling the story in ways unique to his art and his craftsmanship. He suddenly becomes director and storyteller both, no longer a detached messenger of events already vaguely — if not very — familiar. And now, he finds the meaning of all that’s come before, standing “out in those lone shivering marshes.” The dual father figures appear (Finlay Currie splendid as Magwitch, Bernard Miles benignly sweet as Joe) with a sudden warmth and delicacy; Currie’s final moment is the most moving of the film. The dreamlike intensity of all that comes after in Pip’s universe, signified at one point by an alarmingly modern first-person shot of his falling ill and retreating, moreover by the heightened insanity of his farewell to Havisham, falls into place to reveal his terrible, sickening, universal, undeniable oneness with convict and old jilted bride alike. It is literary in the way films can and frequently should be. The scathing criticism of class consciousness that is probably the most vital theme of the novel finally finds its way in visually as well, if nothing else than in the harrowing shot of a line of convicts being told they are to be executed. It’s the film’s most artless shot, and its most unforgettable.
I can’t abide by the remarkably repulsive happy ending tacked on here; the film ludicrously closes on Pip taking down all the curtains so that sunlight shines on Estella as she sits in Havisham’s old chair. Neither the realism of Dickens’ preferred ending nor the begrudging optimism of the published one are present here, replaced by sweetness and light that’s entirely inappropriate, suggesting the protagonist has learned nothing from his ordeal, even after the wrenching final moment with his convict, even after all accepted as truth has been shattered piece by piece. I wanted more than anything for Pip to run away in that last moment, to let Estella rot in her chosen hell, however much that choice may not have been truly of her making; instead he just races even farther into the abyss. If the filmmakers knew this, they were cruel beasts indeed; the opportunity to say something about childhood dreams, society, love, and, indeed, “expectations” is not just thwarted but spat upon.
Taken as a whole, Lean’s Great Expectations is profoundly gripping and expertly made; how much of the pleasure one derives from it is the result of the movie itself is hard to figure. Not much here doesn’t come from Dickens, though it bears mentioning that Ken Mogg and other critics have successfully pointed out the debt all filmmakers owe to him; from his invention of cross cutting to his rapid-paced character development to his attention to detail (which obviously led to the high level of design in play here; the cobwebbed chandelier is impressive, but it’s still Dickens’ more than the movie’s), he was a film director born in the wrong century. He is not the only figure in play here. The compositions are straight Citizen Kane, often even with Toland’s lighting tricks and plenty of Welles’ beloved ceilings. But finally, resistance is usless. Shamefully, the final surrender comes from the very words that should have prevented this movie from even being necessary, and how could you not want a languid, poetic black & white film that took Dickens’ masterpiece and lit it up, redefined it, projected its spirit into a dark lonely moviehouse? That poor dream has all gone by. The joy persists in any medium; it would be cheaper to make an audiobook if we must transpose these things, but I’ll see this again and revel in it again all the same.
[Originally posted at a different venue in 2008.]
13 movies watched in August. Counts:
– 10 new to the database / previously unseen. New total: 2,210.
– 3 revisits, including one (Downhill) previously reviewed in another venue, one (The Conversation) newly reviewed in full here, and one (The Insider) newly re-capsuled here.
– 2 new full reviews, for The Conversation, as noted above, and The Scarlet Empress.
– 10 new or revised capsules, all below.
– Bad month.
– 1930s canon: 4 films (4 new) — The Crime of Monsieur Lange, A Story of Floating Weeds, Osaka Elegy and The Scarlet Empress — leaving 34 films (27 unseen).
– Best Picture Oscar nominees: 5 films (4 new) — Heaven Can Wait (’78), The Love Parade, The Long Voyage Home, and the aforementioned The Insider and The Conversation — leaving 181 films (144 unseen).
– 2010s catchup: The Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan contributed to my ever-mounting disillusionment with modern arthouse fare, though the former had a lot of good points.
– Other: From the NFPS’s Treasures from American Film Archives box, Hell’s Hinges reminded me that my heart belongs in the silent era.
Two Days, One Night (2014, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) [r]
This is a feature film version of that horrific Fiverr ad about a woman who foregoes eating in favor of “follow-throughs” because she is a “doer,” only the Dardennes aren’t celebrating such a lifestyle… though in their usual straightforward, unwavering fashion they don’t exactly seem to be strongly condemning it either. Marion Cotillard is outstanding as a clinically depressed factory worker cruelly forced to campaign to her coworkers over a weekend in order to keep her job, at the expense of their annual bonus; the responses she receives serve up a cross-section of humanity with almost mathematical precision. It’s like Norma Rae rendered as an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode.
The Crime of Monsieur Lange (1936, Jean Renoir) [hr]
One of Renoir’s most successful and accessible hybrids of social commentary and black comedy, about a hapless, amiable clerk at a publishing house trying to get his tyrannical, abusive boss to take his western stories starring one “Arizona Jim” seriously. An unexpected turn of events causes everyone in the tight-knit community around the publisher — a lovingly captured crowd of fully realized characters you almost feel yourself assimilating into — to discover how glorious their lives would be without the tightwad moneyed interests of the big honcho driving their lives. Not only does this work as a rant against the rich, it’s even more intriguing as a serious, deep examination of how our morals work.
Heaven Can Wait (1978, Warren Beatty & Buck Henry) [c]
Pedestrian remake of the slightly uncomfortable 1943 comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan serves as a vanity project for star, producer, cowriter and codirector Beatty, who takes the Robert Montgomery role of a sax-playing jock who dies in an accident then is permitted by angelic forces to insert himself in other bodies and lives. The story has comic possibilities that it never fully investigates, not least because it doesn’t permit any other actor the challenge of “becoming” Beatty, who isn’t much of a comic actor in the first place. Much of the latter half relies on the absurdity of a tycoon trying to secure a position on a pro football team, which means there are a lot of football scenes, which means it’s intolerably boring.
Leviathan (2014, Andrey Zvyagintsev)
Kind of a Russian House of Sand and Fog but grim, bloated and dull.
A Story of Floating Weeds (1934, Yasujiro Ozu) [r]
An elegant and beautiful silent tale of domestic mores from Ozu, shot gorgeously with aching minimalism on the part of its actors, especially Takeshi Sakamoto as Kihachi, a well-loved actor who largely abandoned his son to continue working. Admirable but more emotionally distant than Ozu’s best work, though still absorbing and visually arresting.
The Insider (1999, Michael Mann) [hr]
(Revisit; slight downgrade.) Weaving the high and low culture of television (and the turn-of-the-century downfall of 60 Minutes, long ago a symbol of American enlightenment) into a narrative that conveniently indicts Big Tobacco, Mann produces a new touchstone of the liberal cinema that for once holds up outside of its immediate timeliness. Artful, detailed and understated, this taut drama bites off everything it can think of — it’s an Issues film, it’s a crime film, it’s a journalism picture, it’s an anti-tobacco story, it’s a personal whistleblower odyssey, it’s a modest character study — and chews it all with elegance and ease, presenting entertainment that is absorbing and fascinating for nearly three hours.
Hell’s Hinges (1916, Charles Swickard) [hr]
This classic William S. Hart feature is more an anti-western (and a filmed nightmare) than an ordinary, earnest entry in the genre, transmitting from a period when the American film market was oversaturated with convention. It starts out off-kilter and stays that way, with savagely ironic jabs at a Man of God whose eyes are roving toward promiscuity and a futile attempt to send him out west for impulse control. The crime-ridden town he finds is a rebuttal to any vision of an idyllic west, further corrupting him and sending his sweet sister into the arms of town outlaw Hart. It culminates in a fire that seems to nip at the edges of the celluloid and threaten us; the Old Testament melodrama refuses to lend space for forgiveness to its audience or characters.
The Love Parade (1929, Ernst Lubitsch) [r]
Lubitsch’s first surviving sound film and one of the earliest Hollywood musicals displays little of the expected creakiness; its clarity and opulence are staggeringly modern. Maurice Chevalier lays down the persona he’d revise repeatedly as a womanizing miltary attaché who marries into royalty via Jeanette MacDonald, who wants only for him to sit out his days as a placid figurehead and toy. Unfortunately this bends into a somewhat dull-spirited and aimless story, its actual unforced laughs rare. Despite Chevalier and MacDonald’s chemistry, their musical numbers pale in comparison to the moments shared by supporting players Lupito Lane and Lillian Roth, who bring the house down with “Let’s Be Common” and “The Queen Is Always Right.”
Osaka Elegy (1936, Kenji Mizoguchi) [r]
Bleak, humorless drama follows a young switchboard operator (Isuzu Yamada) suffering so much at the hands of her family and a chauvinistic boss — who seeks her sexual companionship in exchange for financial help, running afoul of his vengeful wife — that she comes to be seen by everyone in her life as a duplicitous monster and ends up driven to despair in the course of a stark 70-minute narrative. The fluid direction and calm realism of individual scenes are so vivid that the film lingers in memory as though it were something the audience witnessed firsthand or maybe even lived, but without the cathartic righteousness of Sisters of the Gion or the bitter ironies of The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums.
The Long Voyage Home (1940, John Ford) [r]
This chronicle of male camaraderie and enmity aboard a British merchant vessel feels more like Hawks than Ford, apart from the lovely opening act that mostly consists of the cast waiting to set sail, as though suspended in midair; though the narrative finds them suddenly tasked with hauling munitions for the war effort, it remains episodic. Ford humiliates John Wayne by trying to pass him off as a Swede of few words, but the rest of the cast is fine — particularly Mildred Natwick in the only major female part — and Gregg Toland’s photography is of course magnificent. There’s believable grit in the reproduction of drunken European sailors and the haphazard, unpredictable lives they were then leading.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Walter Murch might be as much the author of The Conversation, one of the finest and most terrifying of all American thrillers, as its writer-director Francis Ford Coppola or lead actor Gene Hackman. By the time the film entered its post-production stage, even more vital than usual for its unique construction, Coppola was shooting another, bigger film and Murch was given nearly free reign to edit the picture and carefully construct its sound design. Murch’s importance to the project comes not only from his dominance, and Coppola’s partial absence and willingness to collaborate and compromise, but from the fact that, in the nine decades since the introduction of sound to feature filmmaking, this may be the film that makes a more resourceful use of that innovation than any other. Sound (noise and dialogue), the repetition of it, the mysteries and secrets it holds and the false conclusions it can encourage, are what the world of The Conversation and the world of its central character are built on, and it’s the rare example of a work of cinema in which what we hear is just as important — and just as artful, and open to interpretation — as what we see.
Written in the mid-1960s and shot between the two Godfather movies, The Conversation seems to come from a different world than its director’s other works, inspired by an interest in surveillance techniques and the psychology of those in the field, and informed clearly and admittedly by Antoinioni’s Blowup (it even features a mime in its opening shot), which is about a photographer who discovers an assassination occurring in the background of a group of unrelated pictures he took. Hackman’s Harry Caul, meanwhile, is a private surveillance expert who finds his carefully cultivated world apart from the human implications of his own work unraveling, and starts to lose his identity and grip on reality in the process.
The conversation of the title, and that which Caul has been hired to monitor and record for an initially unseen client, is laid out for us almost completely in the opening scenes. Starting with a slow zoom over a town square in San Francisco, we watch as a young couple, both employees of a corporation located nearby, saunter through a crowd, talking idly when they’re surrounded by little noise and with more intensity in louder moments, as though they are trying their hardest not to have the substance of their discussion heard. We learn quickly that Caul has multiple microphones stationed in various places, some a great distance away, but for the moment we can hear only a fraction of the exchange (shared between actors Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest, both haunting in their way but especially the former); the nervousness is palpable from their faces alone. Later we join Harry and his coworker Stan (John Cazale, a treat as always) as they dissect, distort and manipulate the tapes they made to parse out the words being spoken, to great success because Harry is the best in the business and we are privileged to watch him work and witness his expertise in action. As a result we hear the words of the conversation again and again, and relive this scene in sound and vision multiple times for the duration of the film, its meaning and deeper importance repeatedly questioned and revised in our estimation, always coming back to specific moments that are called forward by the narrative and seem, even as greater technical clarity is achieved, to obscure rather than demystify their own essence.
Coppola and Hackman assign Caul’s emotional cycle to those of us in the audience. The characterization is robust, easily the best and most human of Coppola’s conflicted and failed heroes from George S. Patton to Michael Corleone, and Hackman’s performance is truly masterful, undoubtedly the equal of his Oscar-winning work in The French Connection while revealing an almost incompatible style of acting. Coppola’s camera loves the technical precision of Caul’s work, and gets a thrill from unraveling the subtle smugness of his dexterity — he boasts of not caring what the recording actually concerns, only that it’s strong and usable, though we eventually learn this is a defense mechanism in response to a prior tragedy he unwittingly helped to cause — into the confusion that eventually overtakes his life. Caul is a lonely, paranoid introvert who’s constructed a life in which he reveals little to anyone except in dreams, even to his mistress (Teri Garr, who appears in only one scene but is hard to forget), and fudges the truth in most of his rare honest interactions. (This is signalled quickly when he tells several people he doesn’t have a telephone, after we watch him castigating a neighbor for opening his mail on his home phone in one of the earliest scenes.) Somehow, this distance from the character is bridged through the Hitchcock method of allowing us to share his experiences. We can understand that his line of work makes him distrustful of others, and we feel his embarrassment and dejection when he’s rebuffed on the few occasions when he opens up to others, as when a one-night stand turns out to be a setup to have the tapes of the conversation stolen. On the whole The Conversation is a masterpiece of the thriller as subjective experience: its dark world is a reflection of Harry’s psyche, but it becomes our own world in the same way that the shadowy, expressionistic urban environments of Alan Pakula’s 1970s films came to seem so gritty and dark that they were more “real” and thus more threatening than reality, a classic film noir trope. (Talking of Pakula’s All the President’s Men, Coppola later remarked on how a coincidence of timing caused The Conversation to be seen as a referendum on the wire-tipping and high-level conspiratorial behavior of the Nixon era, which wasn’t the original intention.)
Caul’s eventual confrontations with his client, whom he suspects is planning to murder the couple he was spying on (egged on by a line of dialogue: “He’d kill us if he had the chance”), further his fear and disorientation, enough that — placing ourselves firmly in his head — we can be forgiven for wondering how much of all this is even real, especially when Harry begins to be seemingly followed and tormented by his clearly dangerous oppressors. Between his chastizing of his assistant for blasphemy, his guilt-ridden confessions and obvious if easily shaken devotion to his Catholicism, and the solitude and isolation that he constructs for himself in acknowledgement of the danger of his profession — he uses phone booths, takes the bus, uses multiple locks on his home and office doors, and exists in perpetual solitude and isolation, joined only by one vice: his saxophone — we may come to suspect an unreliable narration of sorts even before Harry starts breaking rooms apart and falling into obsession over the mechanics of his latest case. None of his many private agonies are comparable to the moment when he hears the tape he made being used in an adjoining room, fully knowing that it will be an instrument of death, leaving him culpable yet again even if no outsider fully realizes it.
Coppola’s story is elegantly bare and sometimes vague but never suffers from the superficial, hackneyed qualities of similar movies from the period like Pakula’s Klute; he reveals precisely the right amount, incrementally, to Caul and therefore to us, and leaves just enough questions lingering in the open air. Given that this was a studio film, if a modestly budgeted one, it’s refreshing how much credit is given to the audience to use scant information to construct the narrative; despite being a Hollywood thriller, The Conversation feels like a European art film and is unmistakably a product of a period when director-driven works were a hot commodity at even the highest levels of the industry, which dates it more than any of its content. That lack of schmaltz and over-direction extends not just to the plot itself, which is open-ended and enigmatic without being confusing, but to the traces of humor that make their way in: the audience isn’t inclined to know much about the surveillance business going in, but they’ll spot a commercialized charlatan like Allen Garfield’s Bernie with no trouble at all, through his cheap, schmoozing “presentation,” and the way he needles Harry afterward for information.
The intrigue of the conversation itself could take over an enthusiast’s life for some time if he or she let it; there is much to decipher and much ripe for speculation. Little to nothing is directly revealed within the dialogue — the gist is easy enough to catch through well-integrated clues of context — but the final reveal of a change in emphasis in the operative sentence (some classify this as a cheat because Murch used two different recordings, but it’s not difficult to look at this as an internal change of interpretation on Harry’s part), and the meaningful glance exchanged with the Smithers-like hanger-on (to Robert Duvall’s corporate-boss victim) played by Harrison Ford leaves us with the potential that not only did Harry’s notion of a grand white-knight moral victory for himself get turned completely on its head but that the entire use of his services in the first place was a setup. No wonder, then, that the film ends with him destroying his own habitat, frantically searching for bugs and leaks, mournfully playing his saxophone as the camera gazes upon him in a robotic security-camera pattern, cowering in a corner like a trapped rat.
Maybe The Conversation is really a horror film more than a detective story. On the one hand, Harry’s creeping paranoia is familiar and scary enough, but the film’s actual chilling implication seems to be that they really are all out to get you. In the process of this discovery, with possibly hallucinated visions of violence that call directly back to various touchstones of American horror (especially Rosemary’s Baby), we have one scene of overflowing blood that one-ups The Shining six years in advance, and a whole series of almost corporate-Gothic San Francisco scenes: Harry’s shadowy apartment, the bleak and deceptively bustling town square itself, the bizarre fenced-in office space Caul uses, and the castle-like CEO’s office replete with Doberman. However you choose to take its obvious despair and unsettling absence of resolution, The Conversation is an incomparably fascinating, upsetting experience; decades later, Coppola would publicly wish he’d made more movies like it instead of taking on so many projects originated by others. As someone who would take this over a thousand Godfathers, I wholeheartedly agree… but this one remarkable film is enough to justify the director’s reputation, and Murch’s (and Hackman’s) along with it.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
Josef von Sternberg made three of the loveliest films of the late silent period in Hollywood; Underworld, The Docks of New York and The Last Command are all emotive, stylish landmarks of American filmmaking, but nothing in those movies (or even in The Blue Angel, the director’s first collaboration with the incomparable Marlene Dietrich) gives any hint of the pure style and almost overwhelming cinematic chutzpah of his magnificently bizarre, surreal reenactment of eighteenth century Russian history. The life of Catherine the Great is hardly predictable as the source of one of the most forward-looking, energetic and untethered features of the 1930s, but The Scarlet Empress brims with a kind of explosive, violent life whose closest comparison in classic studio-era film might be nothing less than Citizen Kane — it really is that imaginative, that risky, that manic and fun.
As the credits would officially have it, Empress takes its inspiration from the actual diaries of Catherine II, whose reign began with the coup d’etat of Peter III, which is where the film ends. As such, it’s a loosely reality-based document of Catherine’s emergence from lowly Prussian princess to legendarily promiscuous independent force of nature, all prior to her actual reign; truthfully — and by Sternberg’s own admission — it’s an excuse for a great director to indulge himself and to galvanize us with fantasies of excess and primal excitement, of the visual and physical varieties. He seems to thrill at the absence of any force to stop him from creating something this absolutely crazy; the opening credits are literally the only part of the film that are not stuffed with information and action. Roger Ebert once wrote that it was “as if Mel Brooks had collaborated with the Marquis de Sade,” and there can be no more apt description for the film’s bold mixture of impulsive, sadomasochistic flaunting of wealth and power, and bickering, sniping, cutting humor and irony.
The rapidity and wit of the dialogue, which sounds like nothing else broadcasting from the Hollywood of the time — as much a world apart as the eerily modern exchanges in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Scoundrel, but from the opposite end of the realism spectrum — is only one element of this incredible richness, but it has the same sensory impact of constant stimulation and filling of the senses as the sheer ferocity of the directing and performances. Screenwriter Eleanor McGeary gives the peerless slate of character actors much to sink their teeth into, led brilliantly by John Davis Lodge as the virile proto-rock & roller Count Alexey, Sam Jaffe as the weak and oafish Peter III, the unforgettable Louise Dresser threatening to steal the film from Dietrich as Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, and Olive Tell as Catherine’s sycophantic mother, and they clearly love the opportunities offered by the script’s frankness, coming in just under the Hays Code deadline. The insults and tension fly with abandon, and Sternberg’s interest in extremes, which extends to the heavy use of contrast in Bert Glennon’s photography (he later shot Stagecoach), assigns them with no obligation to temper their performances. Therefore, Jaffe is able to really become a sort of pathetic monster, grinning vacantly as he announces “I hate my wife”; and Lodge steps boldly into frame and places his tongue firmly in Dietrich’s mouth without apology; Dresser takes the wind out of everyone and everything in her path of destruction; while Dietrich herself gets every sort of emotional and sexual mileage imaginable out of her deliciously wicked transformation from deferential waif to unabashed sensual goddess.
It’s often noted that Sternberg’s films with Dietrich followed a narrative of women chewing men up and expelling them, but assuming that this is generally just a marker of his own misogyny rather than some buried sense of righteous justice misses how carefully and completely he and McGeary set us up to identify completely with Catherine, easily as much as we do with, say, the geisha in Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion or Sylvia Sidney in Sabotage, two other films from this decade that now come across as strongly anti-patriarchal. Because Catherine is uprooted at an early age possessed of an eagerness to please, and because we watch her being grossly misled about the man who’s to become her husband and then plowed and manipulated by others repeatedly, we strongly feel her dejection and loss of faith in the systems that prop her lifestyle, and we get a nefarious thrill out of the moment when she turns completely away from the constraints of her life and beds a security guard, more yet when she calls Alexey in for private counsel just to rebuff his constant advances. Little wonder that when Catherine is shown as an eager participant in her husband’s assassination, we root for her strongly along with — so it would seem from the film’s interpretation — the Russian population.
The actual experience of watching The Scarlet Empress is almost impossible to describe, insofar as it’s difficult to suss out Sternberg’s own feelings about nobility, wealth and power — the crux might be that, like so many of us, he’s simultaneously repelled and fascinated by the extremity of waste and decadence he allows us to witness. Like so many American films about monarchs and the rich, this one subsumes us in opulence — its immaculate, Ufa-derived set design approaches D.W. Griffith levels of over-the-top, gargantuan proportions, and with a level of detail rarely seen in cinema outside of fantasy, sci-fi and Wes Anderson movies — but never before or since has such a rendering resonated so strongly as the setting of what amounts to a horror film, from its early montages of fiery torture reconfigured as bedtime story for the young Catherine to the gargoyle-filled, cavernous Kremlin that seems a physical manifestation of a nation’s utter, screaming insanity. It’s hard to name another Hollywood film, even Kane, that so brazenly associates wealth with dread, bloodiness and fear. The actors, meanwhile, behave as though they are in a Caligari-like Expressionist classic, none more than Jaffe whose cackling madness is initially a feature of Charles Laughton-like comic relief before he comes increasingly to resemble a Lovecraftian monster.
In the 2010s it’s very difficult not to have a visceral reaction to The Scarlet Empress, a film that means to force its audience’s submission and wholly succeeds all across its busy 104 minutes. To begin with, it’s alarming to know that it was ever possible to make a film like this in Hollywood at all, much less for a major studio like Paramount in the 1930s, a film that serves less as a love letter to its lead actress than as an openly amoral evocation of an almost demonic sexual obsession with her — one man’s psychosexual nightmare captured messily on film, without the careful distance or coded genre tropes of even a Vertigo. It’s truly elevated, singular, relentless entertainment, unhinged and honest and vital, and its miraculous abuse of the by now well-established studio system could keep your head spinning for days, as you slowly fall back into the comparatively barren real world, like you’re waking up from the wildest dream you ever had.
17 movies seen in July, somewhat incredibly given that I spent a chunk of almost every day in one hospital or another. Counts:
– 13 new to the database (previously unseen). New total: 2,200.
– 4 revisits, including 2 previously reviewed here (The Lodger in its splendid new Criterion edition, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, one of the few unfailing respites in a difficult time; how deeply I love that film), and two of my all-time favorite films I felt privileged to attempt to wax rhapsodic about: Broadcast News and The 39 Steps.
– After last month’s drought, 3 new full reviews, for (as expected) Broadcast News and The 39 Steps, and (unexpectedly) for a movie I’d never seen before, Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sisters of the Gion, the second discovery for the 1930s canon project that has entered my list of 100 all-time favorites.
– 12 new or revised capsules, all below.
– Doubled back and finished up Best Supporting Actress, and mostly stayed on quota, though I did not manage to make any bites into new or recent cinema, something I do want to start to double down on a bit as we head into the end of the decade, on top of the unwatched Treasures from American Film Archives DVDs and other material I want to get around to exploring — my proverbial kevyip on both counts is a mile high. Normally I’d scold myself for mediocre time management, for taking on too many projects I genuinely want to do, and for having too much of a life these days (imagine it! and alas, other people — believe it or not — do win out over movies for me), but in this case I actually had multiple family emergencies during most of July and now early August, and this was constantly pushed to the back of my mind or out of it altogether. I’m kind of proud actually for sticking to it as much as I did. Send best wishes to my stepdad, who’s really more of an actual dad than my dad was, as he works really hard to recover from his medical issues, and whose passion for Japanese film makes me hope I get to show him Sisters of the Gion when he’s feeling better.
– I’m more energized and excited about this blog than I’ve been almost since its beginnings, when I was so ambitious about basically reporting at length on every damn thing in the canon. The Best Picture nominees are a long-haul project, and will be dominated in the beginning by films I’m quite interested in before we start to settle back into the prestige morass. And the canon projects are proving astonishingly fruitful, with the treasures easily outweighing the disappointments. I’ve written at length about Broadcast News and The 39 Steps before, but I was terribly young and the work was mawkish and unworthy of being widely shared, even though I did so anyway; maybe it still is, but my favorite thing I do here is studying and promoting the films I love, and I’m psyched up for more.
– Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners: 2 films (2 new). Ending the Oscar winners project, which ran from 2012 to 2017 here, with a whimper and two films that had not yet been released when I started this thing, Les Miserables and The Danish Girl, easily accessible but put off to the end because I dreaded watching them, and that’s before I realized they shared a director. Anyway, this ugliness is now behind us.
– 1930s canon: 6 films (5 new). Slightly under quota, not so much because I ran out of time as because two films I needed for the other project were suddenly set to expire from Netflix. One known masterpiece (The 39 Steps.. which, on this watch, somehow managed to move up in my estimation, which shocked even me), one previously unknown masterpiece (Sisters of the Gion; as with the handful of other films I’ve declared great since I moved over to this venue, my enthusiasm doesn’t seem to be widely shared, but I’m correct as usual), three new discoveries I loved — in ascending order of brilliance: Ozu’s I Was Born, But…, Lang’s remarkably uncompromising thriller Fury (my first encounter, somehow, with Fritz Lang’s Hollywood work), and Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (overlap with BP nominees), very nearly an A+ film and possibly set to become one when I rewatch (Lubitsch is easily the filmmaker I most regret mischaracterizing prior to this project; I’d just managed coincidentally to see three films of his that didn’t fully connect with me), and one disappointment, Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning, but that’s okay. Note that I also wasn’t completely keen on Renoir’s A Day in the Country and that I “got” both Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game when I rewatched them in the last few years. Remaining: 38 films (31 new).
– Best Picture Oscar nominees: 8 films (7 new). First of all, in my initial count for this I missed two entire years of nominees somehow. D’oh. The correct initial count is 194 films, including 154 unseen. I kicked off with The Smiling Lieutenant, an overlap with the 1930s canon, then started properly with a celebratory round of Broadcast News, and then began to knock off the titles from Filmstruck and Netflix: Olivier’s Henry V, Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story (one of the biggest surprises for me in the entire run of this blog), the Olivia de Havilland vehicle the snake pit, last year’s vastly overrated Lion (overlap with 2010s catchup), and the basically OK Babe and The Verdict. Remaining: 186 films (147 new).
– 2010s catchup/new movies: Nothing except Lion, mentioned above.
Now for capsules!!
The Danish Girl (2015, Tom Hooper) [NO]
Another homophobic, transphobic, deplorably ahistorical and homogenized piece of empty Oscar bait that harnesses and violates a real person’s life for award-mongering Hollywood prestige, hitting all the pre-cise-ly sanc-ti-oned biopic grace notes. This time the victim (and that’s very much the way the film processes and understands this person, and LGBT people as a group) is Lili Elbe, Danish transgender artist, portrayed by Eddie Redmayne with astonishing incompetence that must be seen to be believed. One of the worst films of the decade.
Les Misérables (2012, Tom Hooper) [c]
Hooper’s screen adaptation of the celebrated French stage musical is not really any more or less than exactly what you’d expect, your opinion of it undoubtedly tied to how you feel about having the characters in Victor Hugo’s passionate, philosophical novel of poverty and exile in post-Revolution France belt out big production numbers and sing nearly every line between them. Like Oliver! it’s an inherently poor idea, but the public demanded it so here it is. The actors are decent, the production values (rife with CGI grime) clearly high-level, the direction by Hooper abysmal. Not even a shadow of a surprise visible.
Fury (1936, Fritz Lang) [hr]
Lang’s first American film is a taut, pointed thriller about a man who gets falsely accused of a crime while on the way to see his fiancée. Even if you know where this chilling look at mob mentality and misguided vengeance is headed, you’ll still marvel at the righteousness of its messages and the clarity of its targets. Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney are both phenomenal, and they define their characters so well that the chronicle of their long-distance relationship in the first scenes is sufficiently compelling to have been a film of its own. Lang proves adept at using a big studio’s resources to craft a personal, impassioned work of art.
The Smiling Lieutenant (1931, Ernst Lubitsch) [hr]
Monumentally funny, delightfully risque pre-code musical about a promiscuous French army man finding love after breakfast then getting caught up in a royal scandal. Lubitsch’s musical numbers are a bit static at times, and many modern audiences will find themselves immune to the charms of Maurice Chevalier, but there’s no escaping the pull of the adorable Claudette Colbert as a liberated violinist and the alluring Miriam Hopkins, whose performance is breathtaking as a feat of comic precision and timing, to say nothing of an airtight script full of huge, ecstatic laughs, harnessed to complete potential by this stellar cast.
Henry V (1944, Laurence Olivier) [r]
Olivier’s central conceit, of staging this like a Globe Theatre performance that slowly moves outward with the audience’s imaginations into the full visual manifestation of the Hundred Years War at its height, is truly ingenious, giving the entire affair a dreamlike, absorbing quality that leads beautifully to the expansive, climactic, immaculately designed battle — one of the best action scenes in cinema. These virtues cannot mask Olivier’s shortcomings as an actor in the title role, too slight for his own valor; also, not to question Shakespeare, but the text can’t really sustain the excitement achieved during the Agincourt scenes.
The Nun’s Story (1959, Fred Zinnemann) [hr]
Unexpectedly dark, honest, unsentimental chronicle — from Kathryn Hulme’s novel — of a wealthy Belgian woman sacrificing identity and forsaking temptation to join a convent. The film is long, slow, careful and detailed and completely immerses the viewer in the emotional plight of Sister Luke, brought to us in body and spirit by Audrey Hepburn in what might be her greatest performance. Zinnemann and cinematographer Franz Planer successfully contradict the aesthetic beauty of Sister Luke’s surroundings with the increasingly dire, lonely circumstances of her day to day life, leading to an effective, subtly stirring finale.
I Was Born, But… (1932, Yasujiro Ozu) [hr]
Spirited, elegant silent comedy about a pair of boys who find themselves outcasts after their dad moves them to a new town because of work opportunities. At first this is a familiar exploration of kids coping with various childhood rites of passage, with all the integrity of Frank Borzage’s impressionistic glimpses of then-modern life, but when the subject becomes the kids’ relationship with their dad it develops seamlessly into something deeper: about family, money, and the regular humiliation of living for the status quo. Of course, it’s absolutely gorgeous: so still and natural, but so expansive as if the whole world lives within it.
the snake pit (1948, Anatole Litvak) [r]
Alternately harrowing and mildly silly chronicle of the disorienting, often diabolical treatment endured by a woman (Olivia de Havilland) after she’s committed for reasons she finds obscure. Using Mary Jane Ward’s semi-memoir as an inspiration, Litvak’s stroke of genius here is to drop us in the deep end with de Havilland without explanation; we piece the past together slowly along with her, so our identification is powerful. His surreal, almost horror-like interpretations of medical treatment and attendant fantasies and nightmares makes The Exorcist look dumber yet, and the institutional scenes, while dated, feel honestly unflinching in their chaos.
Lion (2016, Garth Davis)
A story this inherently interesting — about Saroo Brierley’s separation from his family in India at age five, leading to a long quest to reconnect with them as an adult long after being adopted and transported to Australia — requires considerable chutzpah to really screw up, but leave it to the Weinstein machine to process it conveniently into the most arid, tasteless brand of prestige picture cheese that amounts to Google Maps: The Movie, endless buildup to a rushed climax. This is what “deep” moviemaking for grownups is nowadays? This formulaic shit, with all the dramatic revelations and confessionals in ex-act-ly the cor-rect pos-i-ti-ons?
Babe (1995, Chris Noonan) [r]
Potentially adorable, beautifully shot fable about a farm pig discovering his hidden talents; though mostly a comedy, it comes equipped with some surprisingly dark messaging about social orders and ethical consumption… which is actually not the reason its maudlin, uneven tone nearly does it in. The delightful scenes involving Babe’s assimilation into his home, surrounded by strange new creatures brought to astounding life by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and a busload of animal wranglers, are vastly more entertaining than those that either try to advance the rather trite, formulaic plot or fall back on easy sentimentality. The humans drag it down.
The Verdict (1982, Sidney Lumet) [r]
Riveting and hugely implausible courtroom drama about a malpractice suit that brings a dishonored attorney (Paul Newman, embarrassing, more so because he’s surrounded by brilliant actors) from the brink of permanent despair and alcohol posioning is a triumph in its blocking and claustrophobic visual sensibility, capturing the coldest of Boston winters while placing a matching sensation of eerie detachment squarely in the heads of his characters. The rhythm of David Mamet’s script is impeccable, though his contempt for his lone female character (Charlotte Rampling) is creepily palpable. The finale is striking but seems cheap.
Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932, Jean Renoir)
Another of Renoir’s mischievous attacks on class structure, with Michel Simon forecasting his free-spirit role in L’Atalante as a bum who gets taken in by a well-to-do bourgeois family who discover the limits of their own charity; the title character is often cited as the first cinematic treatment of a hippie, although my understanding is that committing rapes and spitting in books aren’t necessarily defining characteristics of peace-loving types. Despite its visual loveliness this is everything The Rules of the Game isn’t — didactic, unfunny and dull, belaboring its amusing but thin premise well past the point of tolerance.
!!! A+ FILM !!!
By no means is The 39 Steps, an everyman-caught-up-in-intrigue narrative of the first order, the first great Alfred Hitchcock film; both Blackmail and The Man Who Knew Too Much circumvent such a claim. What can be said about its superlative nature, though, is that it’s the first film he made that is as overwhelming, as much an intoxicating sensory experience as the best of his later American works. Apart from being his best creation up to this moment and the finest of his 22 extant British features, as the second of the celebrated Gaumont Six (the series of breathlessly exciting thrillers he began one year earlier), it finishes defining the niche market of the Hitchcock thriller for international audiences and thereby leads directly to his shuttling off to Hollywood by David O. Selznick. It’s reductive, however, to see the film as simply the beginning of some tradition; its fusion of flawless narrative leanness — no frame wasted — with evocative visual poetry, as well as its wit and air of unexaggerated physical danger, allow it to remain a singular experience and possibly the director’s most purely exciting film. To see it with one’s full attention is to surrender to being absorbed and to being played like an instrument, now as always; even on repeat viewings, one’s involvement is as unshakeable as though the film were a dream that cannot be interrupted.
Steps ties itself to Hitchcock’s correct idea that cinema should be separate from all other mediums. The source material — John Buchan’s novel — is thrown out the window, its skeleton exposed and used to the best advantage for the screenwriters, Ian Hay and the great Charles Bennett (with considerable input from Hitchcock himself). The plot is streamlined and made clearer, with a number of crucial new characters and details added. We begin in a working class music hall in London, following the marvellous, warm Robert Donat as temporary Canadian expat Richard Hannay — instantly visible in a large crowd — as he is approached by a mysterious woman (Annabella Schmidt, lit aflame with lust and mystery by Lucie Mannheim) after a chaotic brawl, punctuated by gunfire, erupts. She goes home with him and confesses to being a spy, out to prevent the transport of unspecified British government secrets; when she is stabbed in the night, her dying admonishment to Hannay “clear out — they’ll get you next!” a vivid reminder of “don’t breathe a word to anyone” in Hitchcock’s previous film, he must escape the inevitable accusation of her murder and expose the actual culprits even as police chase him across the United Kingdom. The chain reaction that follows and the web of intrigue Hannay is stuck in would be difficult to summarize, but eventually his quest is made doubly arduous when he’s handcuffed to one Pamela (Madeleine Carroll, who plays the character’s understandable skepticism perfectly), who has no interest in his spy stories and suspects him to be the murderer cast by every newspaper in the country.
A significant factor in the success of The 39 Steps as a narrative, episodic by nature, is that it requires and possesses very little setup or expository detail; it opens with a bit of comedy in the music hall as a “memory expert” performs, answering questions for an audience, then adds intrigue with Schmidt and Hannay’s brief, suggestive liaison, but from the moment the knife in her back is revealed the race is on and rarely a minute passes uneventfully thereafter. Hitchcock refuses to stop the narrative for any sort of explanation of precisely the nature of these government secrets people are running and dying for, what he would always call the MacGuffin, the motivation for all of the events that nevertheless is irrelevant to their emotional significance; the film’s moments of rhythmic breathing are rather dedicated to his scenic, lyrical (and largely fake!) travelogue of England and Scotland and the people Hannay finds therein. It’s possible to avoid the intricate busyness of the usual spy story because Hannay is an outsider unfamiliar with these matters, a stand-in for us as the audience; while he’s clever and thinks quickly, he is never a James Bond-like figure with all the answers at a given moment, and his chief skill set is to know when to run — he tends to stumble more when deciding his next step. There’s never a moment when those of us watching are out of step with or unsympathetic to him, since he’s positioned as one of the most strongly defined of Hitchcock’s “Wrong Men,” and our identification is secured each time the director renders us paranoid and terrified by showing other characters gazing with accusatory eyes directly at him, therefore directly at us.
In fact, the best way to track the narrative of The 39 Steps is not a conventional measurement of the cat-and-cat-and-mouse among Hannay, the police and the ruthless spy network of the title but as a catalog of the people Hannay encounters during his travails: Mr. Memory, Annabella, the milkman, a pair of lingerie salesmen in possession of a newspaper, Pamela, a deeply religious rural farmer and his wife, a kindly professor who turns out to be a key villain, a duplicitous police inspector and his minions, a crowd at a political rally, spies posing as cops, Pamela again, a sweet old couple running a bed & breakfast, and at last Mr. Memory again. No matter how frivolous their presence may seem, each meeting and episode plays an important role in allowing the remainder of the story to continue locking into place. All of the corresponding scenes are expertly conceived and mounted. But this is no simplistic puzzle-movie, because Hitchcock’s wish is for us to be wrapped up in the emotional urgency that lights up every scene, shot, frame — he means to immerse you and make you succumb to every cut, every tic of an actor’s face, every note of the score, and he succeeds.
Most of those tics are those of Robert Donat, later to win an Oscar for Goodbye Mr. Chips and charm the daylights out of everyone in Vacation from Marriage but never to be so believable and enviably handsome as here, when he becomes one of the most magnetic pawns in Hitchcock’s favorite story and theme. That the director routinely has a field day with the idea of a man accused falsely of a crime with police and mounting evidence on his back, such that he must solve the case himself, makes it no less horrifying in abstract, not least because every one of us can easily imagine such a scenario happening to us. Unlike the haunting, documentary-like 1957 film The Wrong Man, The 39 Steps treats the subject comedically, laced with crowd-pleasing action, but the excitement is healthily stunted by an air of genuine menace. “These men will stop at nothing,” Schmidt tells Hannay, and after all, when we meet Mr. Memory — an unwilling conduit, as it turns out, for the dark scheme at the story’s center — for the first time, he’s drenched with sweat. And after Hannay is warned early on to watch for a man with a partially severed pinkie, it’s truly terrifying when a cheerfully raised hand by Professor Jordan (delightfully wicked Godfrey Tearle), assumed to be his savior and for whom he trudged across seemingly all of Scotland on foot, makes him realize he’s fallen directly into the hands of his new enemies. (Yet crucially, when Jordan’s wife walks directly in on her husband threatening Hannay with a revolver, her deadpan response of wondering why he’s taking so long to come down for tea is a perfect return to the morbid, blackened British humor that litters the film and calls ahead to “what seems to be the trouble, captain?” in The Trouble with Harry.)
Modern reviews of The 39 Steps tend to make much of celebrating its glimmers of “genius” that still lay ahead in Hitchcock’s career; one can be sympathetic to this view when revisiting Blackmail, The Man Who Knew Too Much or particularly The Lodger, but Steps is itself a work of genius, leaps and bounds over even those previous masterpieces in Hitchcock’s catalog, and in fact can be justifiably celebrated as one of the greatest feature films ever made. Whatever suddenly lights a fire under the director, whether the validation seemingly provided by his new studio and his newfound control over his own material or the sympathetic oversight of producer Michael Balcon, the hard work and dedication he emits in response is evident throughout the picture, and pays off handsomely in a film that functions as a thrill ride, a work of extremely intricate pacing. Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut years later, “What I like in The 39 Steps are the swift transitions. Robert Donat decides to go to the police to tell them that the man with the missing finger tried to kill him and how the Bible saved his life, but they don’t believe him and suddenly he finds himself in handcuffs. How will he get out of them? The camera moves across the street, and we see Donat, still handcuffed, through the window that is suddenly shattered to bits. A moment later he runs into a Salvation Army parade and he falls in step. Next, he ducks into an alley that leads him straight into a conference hall. Someone says, ‘Thank heaven, our speaker has arrived,’ and he is hustled onto a platform where he has to improvise an election speech.” In order to make this technique, far ahead of its time, work properly, a strict attention, almost an obsession, was required, and this eye for detail has survived into the film. Every moment feels like the most important in the film to the director, from start to finish, even while exercising his favorite trait: understatement.
On multiple viewings it’s riveting to watch how all of these components have been carefully engineered for maximum effect. Hitchcock: “I saw it as a film of episodes, and this time I was on my toes. As soon as we were through with one episode, I remember saying ‘Here we need a good short story.’ I made sure the content of every scene was very solid, so that each one would be a little film in itself.” Each of the settings established in Steps is treated as a complete world all of its own: the London music hall, Hannay’s flat, the train station, the train itself and its bridges to the North, the mountainous Scottish countryside and the croft, Professor Jordan’s home, the police precinct, the street parade and conference hall, the bed and breakfast, the Palladium. So many of these moments could indeed be their own films, none more resonant than the chilling Scottish farmhouse sequence with John Laurie and Peggy Ashcroft, which has enough depth and detail to go on for the full length of the movie, and deserves its own appreciation.
The series of scenes in which Hitchcock and Bennett establish these two (unnamed) characters and their relationship is a model of narrative subtlety and brevity. Laurie, as much an enemy as Tearle, has less than three minutes of screen time but you’ll never forget him; Ashcroft’s part is only slightly larger but her moments on camera are scarring and flawless, all but stealing the film with Donat happy to hand her the privilege. Having followed Schmidt’s map, Hannay first encounters Laurie’s crofter at the outer fence of his property, where he pretends to seek work while really trying to get some hint from Laurie of where the Professor’s house is located; when the farmer is derisive about the possibilities of making the fourteen-mile trek that night, Hannay gives him money for a bed for the evening — Laurie’s disinterested until payment comes into play — accompanied by the promise that Laurie’s wife, Ashcroft, will provide a meal.
Initially believing — to Laurie’s obvious chagrin — that she’s his daughter and not his wife, Hannay spends a bit of time alone with Ashcroft and we learn much about the couple’s lifestyle during this interlude. She longs to hear stories of Hannay’s life in London, waxing rhapsodically about her former home of Glasgow and its nightly flashing lights and activities on bustling Saturday nights, but warns him he won’t be able to talk of this at dinner because her husband considers such ideas “wicked.” When Hannay is nearly caught innocently flirting with Ashcroft upon Laurie’s re-entrance, he covers by returning to this topic of preferring urban life to rural and Laurie’s response is “God made the country.” Hannay spies a newspaper — his face is currently prominent in seemingly all of them — and borrows it for a spell before Laurie insists it’s time to say the blessing, during which he opens his eyes long enough to see his wife and the stranger communicating silently regarding the front-page article about Annabella Schmidt’s murder. The mastery of the blocking and performing here is down to minute changes in movement and expression, like watching a John Ford scene unfold but with one of the characters fully attuned to the subtext. Suspecting a lustful connection and clearly well-schooled on his idea of wickedness, Laurie fakes going out to the barn to lock up and instead stands by the window, watching Hannay frantically explain his situation to Ashcroft, suspecting much more.
During the night, a flashing light is seen from beyond the hills; Ashcroft approaches the bed to warn Hannay that the police may be arriving. The crofter awakens and believes he has caught his wife committing adultery, but they quickly correct him and explain everything; Hannay tries to bribe Laurie to deny his presence to the police now knocking at the door, but Ashcroft suspects correctly that her husband will betray him, and helps Hannay escape out the back when Laurie begins querying the police about reward money instead. She lends Hannay a coat of Laurie’s that will conceal him more fully in the night, and he responds with a grateful kiss that leaves her intoxicated, her face filled with sensual yearning as she watches him leave. That seems to be all of their lives we are to glimpse — and it would be enough; so much happening here, so beautifully and quietly expressed — until we return to the farm house long enough to discover later that a hymnal in the pocket of Laurie’s coat is what has prevented Hannay from being shot to death in a future scene. Hitchcock’s camera stays away as Laurie reacts violently to the revelation that his wife gave away his coat, one last note of the hypocrisy within this man and his empty piety, preaching of wickedness while beating his wife and selling his moral judgments to the highest bidder. Hitchcock’s cynicism about religion here is secondary to his holistic comprehension of the complete isolation and misery of this marriage, which feels hauntingly true. It’s as though Ashcroft and Laurie are real people we stop to meet, and thus when our spatial distance from them is emphasized later with the hymnal reveal, it’s genuinely jarring to realize how long ago and far away that episode already seems. Moreover, Hitchcock gathers this portrait of human isolation — the only sign of larger civilization is the daily newspaper — as a contrast to the city life he explored in Blackmail, wherein alienation was just as possible for a character coping with the cruelty of men, but there was so much more possibility of temporary respite than the chance that a kind stranger might briefly enter one’s life.
Just as importantly, the Ashcroft-Laurie relationship carries through from Rich and Strange a classic Hitchcock caution about the misery that can result from loveless marriage and its potential stunting of one’s freedom, accompanied by many earlier incidental jabs in the film’s dialogue (almost universally by unnamed characters) comprised of men bellyaching about their wives, their unattractiveness or their needling or just their existence. It’s such a universal language that Hannay is forced to use it to get out of a tight spot early on, borrowing a milkman’s uniform to escape the scene of the Schmidt murder by claiming he’s trying to escape his lover’s husband. Laurie represents the logical conclusion of this idea of marriage as a prison in which one is subservient by default to a sort of casual, everyday cruelty and control, but in the second half of the film Hitchcock explores romance as something more complex and liberating. The most obvious measurement is the cheerful couple running the bed & breakfast into which Hanny and Pamela stumble when they are linked by handcuff after escaping two agents out to kill them. Taking note of the pair’s obvious nerves and assuming they’re not newlyweds, as they claim, the co-owner whispers giddily to her husband “They must be terrible in love!” and admonishes him about even considering letting a pair of alleged investigators know that there’s a “runaway couple” on the premises.
In the meantime, Hannay and Pamela’s relationship enjoys a logical progression after its awkward beginnings that serve as a perverse, underworld mirror of the cross-country travelers in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, not the last time Hitchcock would provoke memories of that source. She doesn’t believe Hannay is innocent, especially after he begins their drawn-out alliance with an unexpected kiss (the only way he can think of to escape pursuit by the police aboard the train) but he disarms her with his outrageous stories about his spontaneously invented criminal past, and the obvious compassion he demonstrates when he helps her hang her stockings and borrows a nailfile to try and separate them. It goes back to the force of identification common to all of Hitchcock’s best movies — you are running from the law and making these big sweeping movements and dodging treachery with Hannay and Pamela, and when she learns he’s telling the truth and journeys out to Scotland Yard to warn them of the pending leakage of state secrets, she becomes the hero of the film in its final act. The closing reveal that resolves the MacGuffin — carried out of the country not on paper but via Mr. Memory — is mostly incidental by then, because thanks to our own degree of involvement, what matters is how all of this falls on the two leads, who are finally safe, and their sole gesture of redemption for their chaotic non-romance is when she reaches for his hand in the final shot. Like so many of Hitchcock’s greatest works, the film ends without catching its breath, but having said all that it needed to about the dim possibility of warmth and companionship in a fickle, mad world.
The 39 Steps has been remade at least three times, twice as a feature film (Ralph Thomas’ 1959 version was derivative of Hitchcock’s but with more explanatory material and far more location filming; the 1978 film by Don Sharp was more faithful to Buchan’s novel) and once as a BBC telefilm, as well as being adapted for the stage in 2005 and as a video game (!) in 2013. Many argue that Hitchcock himself virtually remade the film in 1959 as North by Northwest, another film in which an ordinary man (this time Cary Grant) stumbles into a series of bizarre scenarios after he’s mistaken for a spy. Northwest was not the first Hitchcock film to revive such a scenario, which also appears in his later British film Young and Innocent and WWII thriller Saboteur, but structurally North by Northwest is all but a direct revision of the rhythms and breezy style established in The 39 Steps, with a noticeably larger budget, color, big stars, much gloss and a lighter, more carefree and comic air. (That said, The 39 Steps is hardly lacking in humor, much of it from Hannay, whose comment “It’s a whole flock of detectives” when he sees a group of sheep crossing the road could easy be misremembered as a Cary Grant line, while Hannay’s showstopping political speech, in which he knows neither who he’s supposed to be or who he’s introducing, is echoed by Grant’s clueless entrance into an auction house.) These are both masterpieces, but in terms of its flair for pure, incisive technique The 39 Steps still carries an obvious edge, with North by Northwest magnifying this film’s personal scope to an almost cartoonish extreme, making its sexuality more explicit, its action more thunderingly obvious, and presenting it all at far more luxurious length.
Moreover, The 39 Steps is one of the few films in cinematic history that captures an actual feeling of movement — it has such a breathless rush about it as to seem alive. That’s especially true in the chase sequences. It shares again with North by Northwest a feeling of being a passenger as its story and characters travel a considerable distance, which is also the case for all but one of the other Gaumont thrillers, but none of these films have quite the same urgency and intensity as The 39 Steps, the sort of movie that makes the strongest case against technological progress: its depth of focus is impossible to imagine it without the grand dual assets of black & white photography and Academy ratio. Hitchcock tells hundreds of stories in his movie, and he and his cinematographer Bernard Knowles capture thousands more in the lit skies of London, the smog and beauty of Scotland (mostly recreated on sets but gorgeously so), the tense pregnancy of Donat’s face in his impossibly maddening situation, and simply the painterly grace of every shot in the movie. You just can’t make something that looks like this now; the palpable energy in its photography and editing leave the viewer feeling physically affected. There is much time for beauty, as well — the open window and breeze in Hannay’s sitting room just before Annabella’s murder is revealed, Hannay alone in the professor’s office uncertain of his fate, Hannay rendered as a shadow on a mountainside, and the many Scottish night scenes recreated impressively, atmospherically on soundstages, their artificiality never taking us out of the moment.
Because of the editing, the adroit camerawork and that effortless, almost stumbled-upon beauty, the best spiritual “remakes” of The 39 Steps may be the other black & white films that carry on its tradition of rapid movement, the films that make us feel as if we are physically running. The Battle of Algiers is one, The 400 Blows another, and A Hard Day’s Night even feels in some small way like it’s about the same England as the one in Hitchcock’s film. Richard Lester and Francois Truffaut may never have tried to match a woman’s scream to a train whistle, but they clearly learned something from the emotional investment wrought by such imagination and trickery, and the education pays off in the gut-level impact of their films.
On a personal note, The 39 Steps is the film that awakened me to how much movies could really mean to me. It wasn’t the first Hitchcock I loved and it didn’t even hit me the first time I saw it. But when I picked up the Criterion DVD in 2003 and saw the restored print in all its glorious clarity, I was utterly captivated for the duration. It didn’t seem like an “old” movie to me, which started to melt away my perception of what that even meant, and began a process and a passion that has led directly to my writing this at this very moment all these years later. The sensation I felt that night of being seduced by it is very much by design; it’s a step further in Hitchcock’s idealized notion of “pure cinema.” Whatever the topical themes that once drove it, The 39 Steps feels as if it is happening now, like the challenges facing Hannay are direct threats against us. Further outstanding achievements and great experiments were still in Hitchcock’s future, beginning immediately with his darker follow-up Secret Agent and the multiple lean, probing thrillers he would make during his last four years in Great Britain, but The 39 Steps lingers as a monument all its own regardless of what came later. I get a strange chill when I think of that dissolve into Annabella Schmidt’s map of Scotland and the circle around her destination of Alt-na-Shellach in the Highlands (evidently the correct modern spelling is “Achnashellach”; fans of this film should get a thrill out of playing with Street View around that region), and of moving toward that village with Hannay as if I’ve no will over my own legs, yet I never want the foggy, propulsive dream to end. When Mr. Memory says, just before dying, “I’m glad it’s off my mind at last,” my only thought is of how wrong he is because of how soon I will force him to endure the same scenario all over again, loving every moment every time. For me, this movie feels like running off into a cloudy oblivion; its energy still stirs me.
[Extensively rewritten variation on a review posted in 2004.]