Tag Archives: alfred hitchcock

Suspicion and Doom: movies viewed

When I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s SUSPICION (1941) in college, I found the ending frustrating and unsatisfying to the point the whole movie fell apart. Rewatching, I see I was right about the end (spoilers will follow) but the film up to that point is very good. Joan Fontaine plays Lina, the spinsterish daughter of a wealthy family (I’m impressed she’s able to come off quite different from her Rebecca spinster — smarter and more confident, though just as frustrated with her current role in life) who meets, falls for and marries the charming Johnnie (Cary Grant).  Only after the wedding does Lina learn the downside: Johnnie’s a spendthrift who optimistically thought she had money enough to support them.

Johnnie doesn’t run out when he’s wrong, but he can’t stop spending money they don’t have, gambles compulsively and steals from his employer, lying to her all the while. Then Lina develops a suspicion that he’s found a solution: murder her for a life insurance payoff. She doesn’t want to believe it but after Johnnie’s best friend Nigel Bruce dies before reclaiming the money he loaned Johnnie for a failed investment scheme …

The original plot would have followed the novel Before the Fact: Lina lets Johnnie poison her but then he unwittingly mails a letter to Lina’s mother spelling out what he’s done. Justice will be served. However suicide was banned by the Production Code and RKO’s production head freaked out about Grant as a villain, even trying to cut out all the scenes that made him look bad (the 100-minute movie ended up 55 minutes before RKO put the footage back in). So we get an ending in which it turns out everything was in Lina’s head; Johnnie’s actually going to take the “honorable way out” and poison himself. She convinces him, instead, to come home, face the music and start over.

I’m sure that ending could have been made workable, but here it’s an unsatisfying anticlimax. Even if Johnnie’s not a murderer, he’s been a really bad husband — lying, irresponsible, selfish — and the ending doesn’t convince me he’s really changed. That said, it’s great looking and well acted, with Fontaine snagging an Oscar for her role. “I think I’m falling in love with you and I don’t quite like it.”

SUPERMAN DOOMSDAY (2007) was in my queue even before I started Alien Visitors (which will include a chapter on alien superheroes), though it won’t get more than a passing mention. The first in a line of DC Universe animated films, producer Bruce Timm deliberately broke with the DCAU in voice casting and visual style; Adam Baldwin plays Superman, who wages the fight of his life — and death — against the near-unstoppable alien juggernaut Doomsday, much to Lex Luthor’s horror (“Something I’ve dreamed of for years was taken away from me by an intergalactic soccer hooligan!”). After creating a Superman clone to serve as his proxy, Luthor feels better, but then the clone starts to develop ideas of its own … Some of the visuals didn’t work for me but overall very good; the fate of Toyman is a genuine shock. Anne Heche plays Lois, James Marsters voices Luthor and DCAU veteran Cree Summers plays Lex’s sidekick Mercy Graves.  “At least I get to kill Superman after all.”

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Cross country trips, Romanian tragedy and more: movies viewed

LOVE ON A BET (1936) is a fun It Happened One Night knockoff in which Gene Raymond’s future as a theatrical producer hinges on his ability to leave NYC penniless in his underwear and arrive 10 days later in Los Angeles — in those pre-interstate highway days, a much more impressive feat than it is now — with clothes, $100 and a girlfriend. He soon finagles his way into traveling across country with fortune-hunter Wendy Barrie and her snarky aunt Helen Broderick, but will the burgeoning Raymond/Barrie romance survive when she learns she’s his ticket to fame and fortune (I hadn’t realized that particular rom-com plot went back that far)? A fun one.“I despise the odor of toasted marshmallow.”

MR AND MRS SMITH (1941) is Alfred Hitchcock’s only screwball comedy, the result of Selznick renting him out to RKO after Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent, though Hitch claims he chose it primarily because Carole Lombard wanted to be in one of his movies. Robert Montgomery discovers his affectionately squabbling marriage to Lombard is technically invalid but handles the reveal so poorly she walks out and starts over with Gene Raymond, this time as Montgomery’s blandly wholesome partner. This was an uninspired film but it turned a profit for the studio and proved Hitch could bring in a film without busting the budget. It’s also less of an outlier in Hitchcock’s work than I used to think, not that far from Rich and Strange or the rom-com bits of Young and Innocent, so perhaps the story appealed to Hitchcock as much as working with Lombard. “That’s fine — after I die, she gets the furniture.”

THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (2005) takes place over one night in Bucharest (it’s unclear if he actually dies at the end, but he clearly doesn’t have long) as the sick, pained drunk goes from hospital to hospital under the care of a kind but weary paramedic, only to encounter overworked doctors, arrogant doctors and exhausted doctors all coping with forms, bureaucracy and personal lives — it felt like Grey’s Anatomy or E/R without the compassionate doctor showing up to save the day. Given how universal these issues are, I’m surprised there hasn’t been an American remake. “These neoplasms are Discovery Channel stuff!”

For the first few minutes I wondered if E.T. — THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982) wasn’t going to work for me on rewatching (for Alien Visitors, of course) but before long I found it as charming as I did first run. Elliott (Henry Thomas) discovers a kindly alien who loves Reese’s Pieces (one of the great successes of product placement) and helps him hide from Peter Coyote’s Men in Black while “E.T.” tries to figure out a way to phone home. This is seen almost entirely from Elliott or E.T.’s perspective, or occasionally Elliott’s little sister (Drew Barrymore) which works remarkably well. On one of the special features Stephen Spielberg says although it was a personal film he figured it would only appeal to fans of Disney’s live-action kidvid of the time (trust me, this was not a compliment) and felt quite stunned when it became a critical and commercial hit (Peter Coyote talks about how the crew on the movie he was making when E.T. hit the theaters started treating him as a lucky charm). The sentimentality that works here would bog down a lot of later Spielberg films, but that’s no reflection on this film, which deserves its spectacular success.“It’s a miracle, and you did the best that anybody could do.”

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Reporters, voyeurs and horror: this week’s viewing

I’ve never been a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940) but I find myself appreciating it more as part of my ongoing Hitchcock viewing: making the first third of the film a comedy makes more sense when compared to The Thirty-Nine Steps or The Lady Vanishes. It still doesn’t work as well as they do though.Joel McCrea plays a crime reporter whose boss ships him off to Europe on the theory a hardnosed investigator with a nose for news will get better scoops than foreign correspondents who just send in the latest government press releases. In Europe McCrea falls hard for Laraine Day, daughter of peace activist Herbert Marshall — this is where the comedy comes in — and meets with a prominent Dutch politician who’s a key player in whether Europe goes to war or not (I don’t really see how the guy could have stopped it, but I’ll accept the premise). When the politician is apparently murdered, McCrea realizes the man was an imposter; Nazi agents have kidnapped the real pol to get the truth about his secret treaty negotiations. Can McCrea rescue him in time? “Your childish mind is as out of place in Europe as you are in my bedroom.”

sex, lies and videotape (1989) blew me away when I saw it in theaters, between it’s frank, unconventional discussions of sexual dysfunction and the presence of Andie McDowell and Laura San Giacamo as sisters in Baton Rouge. They’re in a triangle with McDowell’s husband Peter Gallagher but when his college friend, voyeuristic James Spader shows up, the triangle becomes unstable.

Rewatching now I think that, as Roger Ebert put it, the results are more clever than enlightening; I don’t find it convincing that everyone has as much self-awareness as they do, let alone that they can discuss themselves articulately and without any impulse to lie or shade the truth. This problem has turned me off several Woody Allen films over the year but here the movie holds my interest, primarily because of the strong cast and their relationships. It is more clever than enlightening but it is very clever, and that was good enough. “What would you know about a normal frame of mind?”

I watched AMULET (2020) as part of a streaming program by the local Carolina Theatre but it was definitely not worth the price (but hey, I can say that about lots of films I’ve seen at the nearest multiplex). Nun Imelda Staunton sends a burned-out foreign veteran to move in with a woman and her deranged mother. Everything’s dark and moody with occasional shocks (and to their credit they are indeed shocking) before we learn Mom is a demon the woman is reluctantly forced to watch over. And from there, we accelerate to an ending that made absolutely no sense. I do not recommend it. “Forward is not the only way, Tomaz — there are other roads.”

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Haunted by the dead (movies and TV)

William Marshall’s Mumuwalde died at the end of Blacula but in 1973’s SCREAM BLACULA SCREAM he rises again, courtesy of an angry voodoo practitioner who hopes to use the vampire’s power to seize control of the local cult from gifted priestess Pam Grier. Needless to say, resurrecting a vampire does not work out well for the dude.This is more of a straight horror film than its predecessor; where Blacula centered on the love between Marshall’s Mumuwalde and Vonetta McGee, this one is mostly the vampire killing and turning Los Angelinos, who in turn kill more; it’s about two-thirds done before we get to the plot hook of Mumuwalde wanting Grier to exorcise his vampire side. I’ve gone back and forth over which one is better (I’ve watched these more than once) and this time out the first film gets the nod, if only for Scream wasting Grier (she has little to do but cry and shriek). “Vampires can’t be photographed — every ten-year-old knows that!”

REBECCA (1940) was the first movie in the Alfred Hitchcock/David O. Selznick collaboration and it proved a spectacular success for both men. Joan Fontaine plays the never-named heroine of Daphne DuMaurier’s bestselling novel (Selznick insisted on keeping the no-name element, believing it would make her easier to identify with) who meets and charms brooding, intense Maxim DeWinter (Laurence Olivier). When they marry and return home to his magnificent country estate, Mrs. deWinter discovers she’s living in the shadow of Maxim’s dead first wife, Rebecca — magnificent, beautiful, charming, the perfect hostess and upper-class wife; Maxim’s housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) never lets Fontaine forget what a pale shadow of Rebecca she is. Little does Fontaine guess the true story of her husband’s first marriage …

As film historian Leonard Leff says, the film drew on the strengths of both men. Hitchcock had a great sense of visual style and pacing; Selznick had an eye for story and for what audiences wanted, as well as what the Production Code would allow. Along with playing down Mrs. Danvers’ repressed lesbian desire for Rebecca, the film couldn’t use DuMaurier’s version of her death — that knowing she was terminally ill, Rebecca provoked Maxim into murdering her — which violated Code clauses on suicide and getting away with murder. The solution is forced (in the final confrontation Rebecca trips and dies!) but the film’s strong enough I don’t care.

The cast are excellent, including C. Aubrey Smith as a local constable, Nigel Bruce as a friend of Maxim’s and George Sanders as a cad. Fontaine, a newbie, does some remarkable work; when Maxim tells her how he really felt about Rebecca you can see the mix of emotions chasing over her face. “I love you my darling, I’ve always loved you — but I always knew Rebecca would win in the end.”

DC’S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW started out the 2020 season with the Legends battling “echoes,” dead souls of evidoers sent up from Hell to wreak fresh havoc; behind it lies Astra, a young woman with a bitter vendetta against John Constantine (which he admits is justified). Midway through, however, things shift into higher gear as we learn Astra’s patron in Hell is Lachesis of the Fates, with a plan to recover the shattered loom with which they wove destiny and use it to revoke humanity’s free will.

As usual, there were some inspired moments this season, such as nerdy Gary adopting a dog that turns out to be the hellhound that drove Son of Sam to kill. The goofy tone works against it though, and the dystopian fate-ruled world reminded me too much of the series ender of The Librarians. I’m still watching but it doesn’t click with me the way it does with several TV critics. “I only exist because my father traveled back in time to his high-school reunion and had sex with my mom in a broom closet.”

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Hitchcock and Selznick: two great tastes that taste great together

After making Jamaica Inn in England, Alfred Hitchcock jumped to Hollywood for the next phase of his career, making movies for producer David O. Selznick. While I’ve had Leonard J. Leff’s HITCHCOCK & SELZNICK: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood on my shelf for a few years, I figured I’d pick it up as it covers the era in which Hitchcock made Rebecca, Notorious and Spellbound for Selznick, moving from a respected British director to an American superstar.

Joining forces made sense to both parties. Hitchcock needed Hollywood cred to play in the big leagues; Selznick, an independent producer who aspired to make A-list films (most notably Gone With the Wind) wanted Hitchcock’s talent. At the same time it was an awkward pairing: Hitchcock didn’t want the producer interfering in how he made movies and Selznick didn’t let anyone at his studio make movies without his input (in the form of long, copious memos).

Hitchcock is often portrayed as an auteur whose vision was so strong, writers and producers had almost no effect on the final product. Leff argues that on the contrary, Selznick’s movie savvy was as essential to their collaborations as Hitchcock’s genius. Hitch focused heavily on visuals and style, believing that how the movie was shot and edited was the key to audience reaction. Selznick forced him to pay more attention to story and character; he also had an eye for what would and wouldn’t fly with the Production Code (toning down the implied lesbian lust Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers had for the late Rebecca, for instance).

Leff goes into detail about how the two creatives, whether locking horns or working together, gave us Rebecca, Spellbound and Notorious (Selznick loaned Hitchcock out to other studios in this period for a few more movies) though the magic of their collaboration fell apart on The Paradine Case. He concludes that it would take another decade or so after Hitchcock and Selznick parted ways before Hitchcock would reach the same level. These aren’t my favorite of Hitchcock’s movies, so I’ll be interested to see what I make of them rewatching. The book itself is definitely worth reading if you’re interested in Hitchcock, Selznick, or behind-the-scenes Hollywood stories.

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Vampires, Hitchcock, Nazis and witches: movies and TV

BLACULA (1972) doesn’t have the best vampire makeup (though it must have been the first, or one of the first films to show vampires changing their face before they kill) but I still enjoy the story of how Mumuwalde (William Marshall) makes the mistake of trying to enlist Count Dracula’s support in his 1700s anti-slavery campaign, for which the arrogant count bites Mumuwalde, then leaves him chained in a coffin for 200 years. When a couple of swishy gay antique dealers (and there’s a lot of “faggot” tossed around too) buy up Dracula’s furnishings and transport them to Los Angeles, Mumuwalde (the “Blacula” name is only used once in the film) awakens, discovers Vonetta McGee is the lookalike of his long lost wife — now if he can only stop pathologist Thalmus Rasulala and McGee’s sister Denise Nicholas from realizing what he is and stopping his seduction. This is annoyingly inconsistent on the vampire rules (they rise instantly or after dying depending on what the plot calls for) but the leads are strong enough to make it work. Elisha Cook plays an ill-fated morgue attendant. “Look around this room — memorize every corner — for it will be your inglorious tomb!”

Alfred Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES (1938) starts off as a quirky rom-com, with soon-to-be-married Margaret Lockwood stranded at a small European inn where she makes the acquaintance of Michael Redgrave — the most obnoxious, irritating man she’s ever met! — as well as cricket obsessed Brits Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, adulterer Cecil Parker, brilliant surgeon Paul Lukas and May Whitty as an elderly British governess. After Lockwood, Whitty and the others board the train taking them home, Whitty vanishes — but everyone in the carriage with her and Lockwood insists there never was an old woman there. A set-up that’s been reused countless times, this is an excellent mix of romance, comedy and suspense. “It has always been my contention that Hungarian Rhapsody is not their national anthem!”

When kindly Cornish squire Charles Laughton helps innocent virgin Maureen O’Hara reach her relatives at JAMAICA INN (1939), O’Hara is blithely unaware that not only is the inn the center of the local wreckers, Laughton is the secret master; before long, however, she’s working with undercover man Robert Newton (who would later play Long John Silver in Treasure Island, one of the classic pirate performances of all time) to save his life and take down the gang. This was the first of Hitchcock’s three Daphne DuMaurier adaptations, and tanked miserably, as it wasn’t at all what was now defined as a “Hitchcock film.” That said, I did enjoy watching, though it’s definitely not A-list — for Laughton to capture O’Hara at one point she basically has to walk up to him and let him tie her up. This wraps up the Hitchcock DVD set I’ve been watching, but it won’t be hard Netflixing the rest of his films. “Nature has been against you from the start — and everything else has been against you since.”

Taika Waititi’s  JOJO RABBIT (2019) is a bizarre black comedy in which a ten-year-old Hitler Youth discovers Mom Scarlett Johansson has a Jewish girl living in their attic, plunging him into an agony of uncertainty about how to deal with this demonic creature (“They have batwings and climb down chimneys to eat German children.”) — and what if his imaginary BFF Adolf Hitler finds out about it? With Sam Rockwell as a gay Nazi and Rebel Wilson as a proud Aryan Woman (“I have born 18 German babies!”) this definitely isn’t for everyone but it worked for me; I’d probably suggest John Boorman’s Hope and Glory as a double bill for another (but less off-the-wall kids’ eye view of the war. “I don’t want you to kill yourself over me, which a couple of girls have done in the past.”

The TV series MOTHERLAND: FORT SALEM is set in an alternate history where witches ended the colonial-era witch hunts by offering to put their magic in the service of the military. In the present day we follow three teenage witches in basic training — general’s daughter Abigail (Ashley Nicole Williams), idealistic volunteer Tally (Jessica Sutton) and rebellious draftee Raelle (Taylor Hickson). Complicating their struggle to make the grade is the Spree, a terrorist movement dedicated to ending the militaristic use of magic, and whose undercover agent Scylla (Amalia Holm) becomes Raelle’s lover.

I really liked this. It’s an overwhelmingly female cast, sex-positive and just plain good. I’d like a little more on the backstory (we know that the U.S. map is different, and that WW I was fought in 1908-11, but not much more) but the front story holds me fine. And I really like that “the work” (AKA magic) is performed by singing — it makes for a nice change from the usual “magic as psi-power” approach TV takes. I look forward to S2 with pleasure. “Once I forced her to eat part of a dead pigeon.”

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From Gotham City to Dunsinane and points in-between: this week’s viewing

BATWOMAN‘s second half-season kept up the level of the first half, which makes me sad Ruby Rose has decided one season is enough in the role of Kate Kane (there’s no official statement, but I’ve heard this credited to injuries in action scenes, the time suck of being a star in a weekly series, or her and the producers not getting along). She’s done an amazing job and plays great with her deranged sister Alice (Rachel Skarsten) and her step-sister Mary (Nicole Kang), who’s easily the best character in the show (I blogged this week about her and the show at Atomic Junkshop). In addition to the running battles with Alice and Mouse, Kate has to deal with her relationship with her closeted ex, Sophie and the discovery that Lucius Fox’s convicted killer may have been innocent, which doesn’t sit well with Luke Fox (Camrus Johnson).  Due to the pandemic the season ends, like Flash, without the final episodes, but I will say the one they did have works well as a cliffhanger. “Kate knowing what she’s doing can be worse than most people not knowing what they’re doing.”

SUPERGIRL‘s unplanned finish was much less successful, mostly because the season’s been a mess. The big challenges carrying over from the first half were Leviathan, a ruthless alien cabal plotting mass destruction and new boss Andrea’s Obsidian system bringing billions of people into a virtual fantasy world; and Lena’s (Katie McGraw) plan to cure humanity of evil with an experimental mind-control system. Adding to this, the post-Crisis reality-altering turned Lex Luthor (Jon Cryer) into a respected businessman and the head of the DEO without changing his evil agenda any; while Cryer’s good in the role this repeated last season’s twist of revealing he’s been manipulating and playing all the various villains for his own ends. It’s too repetitive (he mocks Eve Tessmacher for her foolishness much as he sneered at Red Daughter a year ago) and it doesn’t help when the villains are so unsatisfying. Leviathan’s members are powerful but not notably different from any other conqueror; the buildup with Obsidian felt pointless (despite one great episode with Alex as a VR version of Supergirl) as Andrea doesn’t have an evil agenda. Lena’s arc, finally coming back to the side of good, was the only one that really worked. So the season just fizzled out — it didn’t help that winning (though with Lex still a threat) relied on Supergirl making a very unconvincing inspirational speech. “You arranged a battle with Earth, Wind and Fire and didn’t invite us?”

I don’t think I’d heard of Hitchcock’s YOUNG AND INNOCENT (1937) before watching it, or if I did I confused it with Rich and Strange. It turns out to be a good version of one of Hitch’s favorite themes, the Innocent Accused (it’s very much in the mode of The 39 Steps). When an actress turns up strangled on the shore (shortly after a private argument with her estranged husband), beachgoers spot Tisdale (Derrick de Marnay) running away from the body. He claims he was going for help but nobody believes him, including his incompetent attorney (there’s a lot of comedy in this film). Tisdale escapes and goes on the run with the help of Erica (Nova Pilbeam), a police officer’s daughter. Can they find proof that Tisdale didn’t do the deed? The leads’ love at first sight works much better than the romance in Secret Agent and the film is a good one with some clever suspense sequences, like the leads being stuck in a kid’s birthday party when they have a desperate need to be elsewhere. That said, I’m not sure the plot holds together (there’s no indication the police even tried to contact the husband) and the climax involves a nightclub band in blackface, so be warned. “You forget, it’s my petrol.”

MACBETH was a Folger Theater production streaming through the end of July. A well-executed, energetic production of the “Scottish play” but despite a striking opening (a staffer discussing trigger warnings for violence gets stabbed) it doesn’t stand out from other productions despite Penn of Penn and Teller co-directing (while some of the magic scenes are striking the play doesn’t make a huge thing of them, which is good). “Methought I heard a voice cry out ‘Sleep no more — Macbeth doth murder sleep!”

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Flight 828, Freedonia and sabotage: TV and movies

While I enjoyed the first season of MANIFEST, the second season, which wrapped up this week, left me disappointed.

The first season introduced us to the passengers of Flight 828 — most notably siblings Ben and Michaela Stone (Josh Dallas, Melissa Roxburgh) — who disappeared for five years before landing, unaware any extra time had passed. They and the families who wrote them off for dead have to adjust to their new reality, and to the mysterious “callings” in their heads that keep sending them out to save lives.

There’s a lot I like in the second season, such as Jared, Michaela’s ex (he moved on while she was gone, comes back to her, then loses her) accepting it and just becoming a friend, and one passenger founding a church that sees them as agents of God (only to later reconsider whether they’re false prophets of the Biblical end times). But the general tone of the series is that “all things work together for the good,” with the Callings working miracles even when they go against common sense. This is a hard sell for me because it usually comes off way too pat (as in Kiefer Sutherland’s 2012 series Touch), as was the case here. The season climax, involving a trio of drug-dealers getting revenge on Michaela, could have been on any number of cop shows, and one of the B-plots was just ridiculous (even shadowy government conspiracies can’t simply revoke someone’s medical license overnight). I’ll watch S3 if there is one, but I won’t be heartbroken if there isn’t. “For the record, we both turned on me.”

DUCK SOUP (1933) was the last of the Marx Brothers’ anarchic Paramount films, wherein Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) becomes the new leader of Freedonia, which undercuts a neighboring nation’s plot to take over. Fortunately they have two spies (Chico and Harpo) to find Firefly’s weaknesses — that can’t possibly go wrong, can it (“Wednesday we fool Firefly. We not show up.”)? Although this bombed at the box office, it’s wild, funny film with many great lines (“We’ll fight for this woman’s honor, which is more than she ever did!”) but the ending is an unsatisfactory resolution to all that energy; still, it makes me appreciate why MGM imposing a more conventional story structure on the brothers worked against their strengths (with the exception of Night at the Opera). “Will you marry me? Did your husband leave you any money? Answer the second question first.”

After the poor The Secret Agent, Alfred Hitchcock’s back in top form with SABOTAGE (1936), based on Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (retitled to avoid confusion with his previous movie — but that only made me confuse it with Hitch’s later SABOTEUR). Oscar Homolka plays a cinema owner married to Sylvia Sydney, earning a little money on the side by acts of sabotage. Now he’s been given a really big assignment; can the greengrocer next door, who’s actually a Secret Service agent, charm Sydney enough to get the goods on her husband?

This is a well-made movie that shows Hitchcock’s belief that the McGuffin doesn’t matter: like the much later North by Northwest, we never learn what, exactly the  bad guys’ agenda is or what they want. It’s not important. It also shows Hitch’s mastery of suspense: a long sequence involving a character unwittingly carrying a time bomb, and constantly encountering delays before he can drop it off, is an absolute nail-biter. I did find the suspense at the end somewhat overwrought, though; after everything that’s happened, it seems Sydney’s actions are more likely to earn her a medal than jail time. “I don’t think I want any cabbage.”

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One winner, two meh in this week’s movie viewing.

The winner was THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936) which I mentioned in passing Tuesday. Errol Flynn plays the Lancer stationed in fictitious “Suristan” who copes with personal drama — fiancee Olivia de Havilland loves his younger brother! — while warning his superiors that the Suristan king (C. Thomas Gordon in brownface) is not happy they’ve cut off his slush fund and that things could get very dicey very soon …

When they don’t listen, the king takes a bloody, treacherous vengeance, then flees to Russia (Britain’s rival in the “great game” of empire). When the Crimean War erupts, Flynn and his Lancers are sent into the thick of things and finally get a chance at revenge — but only by defying their commanding officer to make the eponymous charge.

The real charge was the result of a stupid screw-up, but Alfred Lord Tennyson made it sound epic and heroic in his poem about the battle. This film makes Tennyson look positively anti-war (he did at least acknowledge the blunder) but it’s the kind of old school imperial romance that I get a kick out of, even knowing it’s unhistorical nonsense. Along with Flynn and de Havilland we have Nigel Bruce as a henpecked officer who proves to have the right stuff, Donald Crisp as the man who warns Flynn off ( (“You can’t charge, Vickers — it’s a valley of death!”) and David Niven. There’s also the spectacular final battle, which is truly epic, though aided by the brutal “Running W” for tripping horses (some sources say its use here triggered the animal rights protests that eventually led to abandoning it). “That is why the 27th Lancers has been ordered to Sevastapol.”

Based on W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, the WW I-set spy drama THE SECRET AGENT (1936) works better than Hitchcock’s silent melodramas but that’s not the same as saying it works. John Gielgud plays Ashenden, a novelist/war hero who discovers the Secret Service has faked his death so that he can work undercover tracking an enemy agent carrying vital intelligence back to Germany; Madeline Carroll, who was wonderful as the love interest in The 39 Steps is much less effective as the agent posing as Gielgud’s wife here.

This has some interesting elements such as the protagonists’ growing horror at the ruthlessness of their work, but Gielgud (this is the first time I’ve ever seen him as a young man) feels miscast: he’s stiff and unconvincing and having him and Carroll fall in love comes out of nowhere. Robert Young plays a likeable American and Peter Lorré plays a British-employed killer. “What is this strange power you have over coachmen?

IN ANOTHER COUNTRY (2012) falls even flatter as a Korean woman distracts herself from her troubles by writing three different fantasies about French immigrant Isabelle Huppert showing up in the woman’s small seaside town and having romantic adventures. Way too meandering. “Why Are You So Quiet?”

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Batman, a fake pirate, and a man on the run: movies

BATMAN AND BILL (2017) is a documentary by Marc Tyler Nobleman following up on his earlier book Bill the Boy Wonder. Like the book, it lays out the overwhelming evidence that Bill Finger deserved co-creator status on Batman (to say nothing of credit for such classic stories as the Joker’s debut, below), and that when fans began confronting Bob Kane with this, he made outraged denials (the success of Batman on TV is a particular sore spot as Kane’s percentage made him rich while Finger lived in lonely poverty). The documentary traces Nobleman’s efforts to track down an heir who could make a copyright claim for Finger, and eventually succeeded — the closing scene is Nobleman seeing Finger’s co-creator credit on Dawn of Justice. On the whole, better than the book. “This is a statement about Bill Finger as an unsung contributor by the man who’s most responsible for Finger not getting credit.”

I also caught BATMAN: The Scheme Is Sound, a 2019 tribute by the Parkview Elementary School Music Club to the 1966 TV show: Why does the Riddler kidnap a dishwasher heiress? What happens when Catwoman and Batman dance the Watusi? Who can save the Dynamic Duo from death by dishwasher? This was fun, though the actors playing the villains had  more to work with than the straight man roles of the heroes. “This adventure ended on a good note.”

THE PIRATE (1948) is my delayed double-bill to last week’s The Black Pirate as Gene Kelly’s swaggering bravo here is partly a riff on Douglas Fairbanks’ role in that earlier movie. Kelly plays Serafina, womanizing leader of a Caribbean circus troupe in the 1830s. He’s instantly smitten with Manuela (Judy Garland), a repressed, convent-raised girl about to marry her town’s stuffy mayor, Don Pedro. Serafina puts Manuela under hypnosis to get her to admit she loves him, but instead she reveals her fascination with the legendary pirate Black Macocco (“Mac the Black” is one of Cole Porter’s delightful songs added to the non-musical stage show this is based on). When Serafina realizes Don Pedro is Macocco, retired, he contrives to pose as the pirate and win Manuela, but of course that kind of imposture is just bound to go wrong … The leads are awesome, bounding with energy, as are the talented Nicholas Brothers in their one dance with Kelly (black entertainers were limited to numbers the studios could cut out for prints in the south) and the songs are fun. The romance should be unconvincing (there’s really no set up for Manuela falling for Serafina) but the stars make it work; however Serafina’s pursuit of Manuela has enough creepy overtones, it’s not going to be to everyone’s taste. “Now that I’ve seen ya/Niña, Niña, Niña/I’ll have neurasthenia/until you are mine.”

THE 39 STEPS (1935) was Alfred Hitchcock’s very free adaptation of John Buchan’s same-name novel, a hit book which introduced Buchan’s series hero Richard Hanney (one of the forgotten adventurers covered in Clubland Heroes), but even Buchan admitted Hitchcock improved on the source. Robert Donat plays Hannay, temporarily staying in London; when a woman invites herself up to his apartment, he’s game, but then she reveals she’s part of a spy operation and staying with him to hide. Doesn’t work: she winds up knifed in the early morning and Hannay, realizing he’d be the prime suspect goes on the run. Can he clear his name? What is the secret of the “39 steps” and the man with no little finger? Will Madeline Carroll, who winds up dragged along with him, come to see that Hannay’s on the side of the angels?

It’s a first-rate film, superior to Hitch’s previous movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much. It’s also very much a model of the themes and tropes Hitchcock would play with for the rest of his career. The man falsely accused of a crime. Traveling hither and yon to bring the bad guy to justice (something that also happens in North by Northwest and Saboteur). The “McGuffin” behind all the espionage not really mattering — we know it’s something involving aviation, but the explanation is just a string of technobabble. The Hitchcock Romance argues that Hannay also undergoes a typical romantic/maturing arc for a Hitchcock protagonist. He starts out unattached — no permanent home, willing to have a casual liaison — and ends up happily restored to society and in love with Carroll.

#SFWAprof. All rights to images remain with current holders. Comics art by Jerry Robinson



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