Help! (1965)

Helponesheet.jpgWhat can I say? I am one of the proud and the many who loved The Beatles before they loved any other type of music. So when I watch Help! I look for all the best in it because that’s all that I can do.

However, if you are familiar with this follow-up to the frenzy and the success surrounding A Hard Day’s Night (1964), then that picture will feel like a serendipitous accident where everything came together for 90 minutes of magic. Help! is more of what one might actually expect from distributors trying to capitalize on The Beatles fandom before “the fad” ran its course. It’s less inspired and hammered out with what seems like little forethought at all. Because that’s what it was. Except previously a better job was done to fake it.

Though a quality filmmaker, Richard Lester was hampered by time constraints even going so far as to edit his daily footage while he was making the film. The ending results showcase a purposely disjointed narrative with a ludicrous script following a Far Eastern cult’s attempts to swipe Ringo’s prize ring for their human sacrifice. There’s not much more to it than that. It would prove ample fodder for many an episode of The Monkees which made no qualms about being a Beatles knockoff.

The rumor mill even provides accounts that the Fab Four were to have made a western picture with the lads all fighting for the affection of a rancher’s eligible young daughter. Maybe it’s the novelty of an idea never realized but I would have liked to see that picture in lieu of this one. However, we must content ourselves which what we have.

Stacked up against some of its more forgettable contemporary spoofs and scatterbrain comedies, Help! could have done a worse job blending the exoticism of Bond with its attempts at comedy. There are numerous Eastern influences and if anything the film facilitated Harrison’s introduction to the sitar. We even hear a version of “Hard Day’s Night” on the Indian instrument.

Otherwise, the boy’s flat is decked with Tati-like contraptions and coloring that evoke the Frenchmen’s work in Mon Oncle (1958). The lines of disparate gags owe a debt to Peter Sellers (especially The Goon Show) and act as a less inspired precursor to Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

These are the only reference points I can manage and yet this suggests that Help! might have been so much more. Instead, fueled by their new infatuation for marijuana, the boys are in a bit of a garbled haze and it reflects the mess of the film full of flubbed lines and absurd non-sequiturs.

Nevertheless one could argue that much of it feels akin to the world The Beatles were finding themselves adrift in. Their fame had blown up to outrageous proportions that were almost laughable. It would make someone go batty. Perhaps they needed a trip to the Alps and the Bahamas, play acting with tigers and then tanks on the Salsbury Plains. For a few stray moments, they were not a commodity. They could muck about and be themselves.

That gets down to one of the primary takeaways. We still have The Beatles. True, John Lennon later commented that it felt like the boys were sideshow attractions in their own movie. I get the sentiment but I would disagree it in the sense that I’m hardly drawn to any of the other characters. There’s little interest in their antics because I’ve seen countless more inspired takes on the same material.

But we have Richard Lester directing The Beatles’ music so we have something iconic to grab ahold of. It’s not a total loss. What you gain an appreciation for, especially in this effort, is how Lester has almost single-handedly invented the language of the music video whether he meant to or not. At its best that’s what this manic comedy is — an early exhibition in the music video — using spliced together standalone sequences showcasing the boys in various situations most memorably attempting to ski or playing curling.

“Ticket to Ride” in the snow, “I Need You” out in the brisk British air, and “Another Girl” shot in the Bahamas are able to bottle just a little bit of The Beatles because it’s their music that stands the test of time meshed with those playful personas.

While it’s momentarily amusing for flashes of humor and memorable for the unparalleled tunes, in many ways, it pales in comparison to its predecessors.  It lacks the perfect docudrama zaniness of A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and the pure animated invention of Yellow Submarine (1968). Instead, Help! slates itself as an often shallow even dopey picture.  But, I’ll say it again. We still have The Beatles. Surely that is enough for most of us.

3/5 Stars

 

 

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Four_weddings_poster.jpgI’ve been of the certain age where it seems like every friend you have is getting married in the next year. It’s an exhilarating time albeit expensive and a bit taxing (if you’re even able to go to all of them). But most of us wouldn’t trade the joy of being a part of these experiences for anything.

Weddings in themselves have always been a marvelous enigma to me. Because the days before and after are full of preparation, stress, and a barrage of feelings. But the actual arrival of the ceremony is almost surreal. It’s a moment captured in the hinterlands where you’re suspended in this euphoric high that can either be magical or come crashing down thanks to some inexplicable faux pas. Emotions are heightened. Love and romance are on everyone’s minds.

That’s what makes the narrative conceit of Four Weddings and a Funeral such a smashing idea because we know already what weddings do to people and that makes the prospect interesting. Imagine you only really ever meet someone at these regal affairs. She has a fashionable hat. You’re dressed to the nines. Mutual friends are being wed. The bubbly is flowing. She’s an American. You’re British. Well, anyway that’s the preliminary outline of this story.

Charles (Hugh Grant) is perpetually running late to big day after big day. But each one is special and each one of them puts him face-to-face with a gorgeously remarkable woman named Carrie (Andie MacDowell).

First, they connect in the aftermath of a mutual friend’s wedding, getting to know each other rather well at their hotel. Then the next time they meet his heart goes flutter once more only for her to introduce a fiancee at least 30 years her senior. Charles is devastated. Still, only a little while later, they spend the night together again.

Wedding three belongs to Carrie and you can already feel the dissonance going on as she slept with Charles but is willfully marrying another man. However, they both take it in stride as do their many friends. Until one of the more boisterous members of their crowd, Gareth, dies from a heart attack.

So in the final stretch, we have Charles looking to tie the knot with one of the various girlfriends we’ve met at the subsequent gatherings, Henrietta. That is until the news hits about Carrie’s marital status when they cross paths quite by chance. She’s no longer married. The Pandora’s box of doubt has been busted open right on the eve of his wedding day and he’s stricken by indecision as he teeters on the edge of this monumental event.

What Alan Curtis’s script captures exquisitely is the vast network of people and relationships that link and interconnect over the years when you share a friend group and it slowly begins to grow and expand with the passing years. It provides the perfect cultivation ground for myriad characters, budding couples, best friends, priests, parents, and the crotchety elderly. All mainstays of the wedding circuit.

However, the final conclusion arrived at in this romantic comedy feels, in one sense, outmoded and by other estimations, rather selfish and unrealistic. Maybe they are one in the same.

The lovely, whimsical idea of finding “the one” remains intact to the very end but at what cost? Surely it doesn’t matter that another woman has been left at the altar and a whole wedding has been canceled because of what we might pragmatically term one man’s indiscretion or closer yet, his selfishness.

That ethereal feeling of the quintessential movie romance is unfortunately sullied. Perhaps I’m perceiving too much of reality and not enough of the lens of fairytale magic that might be afforded such a narrative, but I cannot help it.

Like I already mentioned, I’ve been in those moments where people you know and love were getting married. I’ve seen the affection in their eyes and on their faces. There was not an ounce of visible apprehension there. Everyone in the room, the chapel, or the banquet hall, knew it full well. These were people who were in it for the long haul. This was not a flippant decision, a momentary fling, or a mere consolation prize.

This was the joining of two people through thick and through thin. Maybe it is soppy but to me, it proves far more fulfilling than its alternative. In my naivete, I’d like to believe that there are still people out there who are committed to marriage and they’ll willingly dig in together for better or for worse. My assertions might fly in the face of this film but I’m okay with that.

Four Weddings and a Funeral has its moments of delight, however, in the end, it cannot do complete justice to the utter jubilation when you’re with your friends or family celebrating the union of two people you dearly love. Perhaps that’s as it should be. Each wedding is personal and unique all to its own.

3.5/5 Stars

Summertime (1955)

 

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It’s summertime and the living is easy. It makes me think of sultry summer days and cool summer nights and George Gershwin. But summertime also means travel. It did for my family when we were growing up as kids and it took us to many places near and far off. That’s what this film gives us license to do. Venture into another world for a picturesque vacation.

News that Summertime was supposedly David Lean’s favorite picture of his own work is not all that surprising when put into the context of his career. When I think of him I am quick to reference monumental epics or British narratives out of Charles Dickens but here is a picture that feels strikingly different. It’s intimate and small yet still gorgeously photographed and affecting. It’s no Lawrence of Arabia (1962) or even Great Expectations (1946) but it has no aims to be. That’s what makes it a delightful change of pace.

Katharine Hepburn plays an American school secretary from Akron Ohio, one Jane Hudson, who has always had a dream to travel and get out of Middle America to see the world. We see her aboard a train bound for Venice and she’s beyond ecstatic chatting up her fellow traveler and snapping pictures on her camera that’s already logged rolls and rolls of film undoubtedly, capturing the most mundane things for the simple fact that they come from a foreign land.

But there are even more stereotypical American tourists who are hilariously ignorant and subsequently stick out like a sore thumb wherever they wind up. To say the McIlhennys are slightly insufferable is kind of the point. Still, they’re hardly to be taken seriously. It’s people like them that cause Jane to want to venture to Italy to get away and allow herself to be wrapped up in the throes of another culture. I can certainly resonate with that sentiment. I feel that way now.

So, in one sense, she still maintains the awe of a tourist but manages to experience the life as if she were a local and that’s the key, boarding in a pensione and trying to get a taste of everyday life.

First, she is befriended by a spunky little boy who tries to sell her his goods and out of that grows a mutual affection for one another. She also wanders into an antique shop to buy what she deems to be a precious goblet and strikes up a conversation with the proprietor (Rossano Brazzi) who she had unwittingly crossed paths with before. This is the first of many meetings.

In a film such as this where the sets are left behind for a foreign locale, a place like Venice very easily becomes almost another character in the film because being there alone creates a dimension you would never get otherwise. Without Venice, those layers of history, accents, and textures, something magical would be lost. But with it, Lean makes something that rings with gentle passion.

The sumptuous visuals capture both the immense character and quaint waterways with their gondolas drifting lazily by. Tailor-made for romance especially between an American school teacher and a handsome Italian shopkeeper, bringing them so close together over the course of the film. The Piazza San Marco is showcased front and center in numerous sequences but even with its presence this still exists on a smaller scale than the parade through Rome that is Roman Holiday (1953). Because it readily occupies itself with many smaller scenes too.

Lean even preceded Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) with a very similar fireworks show. In both cases, the moment signifies the strides made in the relationship and just how splendorous they are.

Summertime also features one of the most striking endings because it’s not quite as cathartic as we are used to in a love story and yet it hardly can be considered downbeat or melancholy. A lot like life, it simply is and how can you be glum anyway? It’s summertime. Venice is immaculate. Love is afoot.

It so enraptured David Lean that he would make it his home away from home. At that point, it doesn’t matter if we like this movie because as its director Lean was taken with it. That’s praise enough.

3.5/5 Stars

Night Train to Munich (1940)

Night_Train_to_Munich_Poster.jpgWe are met with the scourge of Hitler overrunning mainland Europe. It’s about that time. American isn’t involved in the war. Britain’s getting bombed to smithereens and the rest of Europe is tumbling like rows and rows of tin soldiers.

Carol Reed always proved astute at setting the stage for great human dramas and Night Train to Munich is little different. Anna Bomasch (Margaret Lockwood) wakes up to find that the Nazis are on the march for Czechoslovakia and her father, a renowned scientist, is fleeing the country. However, she’s not so lucky and gets intercepted by the Nazis ending up in a concentration camp instead of aboard an airplane to freedom.

It’s in these moments where the script develops a fairly frank depiction of the concentration camps denoting that they were hardly a day of wine and roses. But in that very harrowing climate, she meets a proud rebel named Karl (Paul Henreid) who uses his underground contacts to help them escape and promises Anna that they will find her father in England. Hope still exists.

The man they wind up reaching in the British Isles feels more like a nobody than a top government agent singing tunes at a beachside promenade. But Dickie Randle (Rex Harrison) proves to be far more than he lets on at face value. Still, he is not the only one who holds that distinction and no sooner have they been reunited then father and daughter find themselves kidnapped by Gestapo spies and carried on a U-Boat back to the Fatherland.

We know where the final act must go as Randle heads into the mouth of the lion’s den to try and pull off a daring rescue that looks like an absolutely ludicrous endeavor with not even a half chance of succeeding. He masquerades as a member of the German corps of engineers and pulls the wool over on some of his denser adversaries. Still, one man is not so oafish and they must thwart the insider Gestapo man looking to trap them.

In its day and even now the film was pitched as a sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes (1938). The connection can be attributed to several aspects including similar locales — namely a train — the same studio producing in Gaumont, the screenwriting skills of Sidney Gilliat, and even the same leading lady in Margaret Lockwood. For these very reasons, it does become an interesting exercise to juxtapose this later work with The Lady Vanishes.

In fact, Reed’s film you could say was steeped in politics more than anything dared by Hitchcock. But it might be a stride too far to surmise that Carol Reed was a political filmmaker. He was a master at creating compelling worlds planted in the realities that were already known to us such as war-torn Ireland or Post-war Vienna. They are real moments but as is explained so exquisitely at the beginning of Odd Man Out (1947), these are not the particular aspects that connect us together. It is the universal quality of the human experience that reaches us…

That Man is evil. That love leads us to make choices that others would not. That Man often makes war instead of peace. Admittedly, Night Train to Munich is not such a rich exploration in environment, character, or cinematic themes, but it still has power as a fairly frank thriller. It can be hailed along with films like The Mortal Storm (1940) and The Great Dictator (1940), for being astutely aware of the historical moment that they were embroiled in — at least more so than most.

There are innumerable jabs at the Nazis including one minor gag involving the inflection of the phrase “This is a fine country to live in.” One rascally dissident uses this precise scenario to slither his way out of an appointment with a local concentration camp. Still, a moment like this and similar gags in barb-laden comedies like The Great Dictator (1940) or To Be or Not to Be (1942) come with a certain solemnity. Because we know the vast amount of carnage such camps were guilty of.

Surprise, surprise that everyone’s favorite British comic duo Charters and Caldicott crop up again proving to be as fussy as ever. Except in such an edgy climate, they too feel oddly out of place. Because maybe the threat feels all too real and as far as characters go they are caricatures not fit for such a realistic world. They’re just not quite at home with Nazis and concentration camps and how could they be?

Still, putting them back in their element, that is, back aboard a train, it feels like all is right with the world again. But even then, they act differently. This time they stick their necks out spurred on and put in a general huff by the indecency of the Nazis. And if they can all of a sudden get patriotic then the assumption is that most any convivial bloke can.

Whereas the train acts as the hallmark of The Lady Vanishes, in this film it is more of an important stop along the way in the overarching narrative. This story boasts a thrilling cable car finale with a subsequent shootout that’s gripping despite the inexhaustible amount of bullets or maybe precisely for that very reason. Carol Reed’s films would only improve as the 1940s went on but there’s no denying the intrigue and political clout here. He deserves to be remembered among the foremost of British directors if not only for his revered masterpieces like The Third Man (1949) but also the minor classics like Night Train to Munich (1940).

3.5/5 Stars

Review: The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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Though he would make Jamaica Inn the following year, it’s undoubtedly The Lady Vanishes that situated Hitchcock for the move to Hollywood as his last great British film showcasing once more his immense aptitude as a storyteller no matter the resources on hand.

At the beginning of the proceedings, an avalanche makes accommodations at an inn, hidden away in Europe somewhere, rather sparse and it makes for strange bedfellows and noisy neighbors. Among them are the prized comedy duo Caldicott and Charters (Naunton Wayne & Basil Radford), a pair of quibbling cricket enthusiasts. Meanwhile, radiant Iris Henderson (Margaret Lockwood) is just coming off a glorious vacation with a couple girlfriends as she returns to get married to her fiancee.

Dame May Whitty makes a fine showing as a rather whimsical eccentric, playing the role of a kind-spirited governess enjoying some time in the land she deems a little slice of paradise. In one off-handed comment, she notes with bright eyes, “I don’t think you should judge any country by its politics. After all, we English are quite honest by nature, aren’t we?”

It’s a passing line that suggests Hitchcock’s own indifference to politics. He briefly touches on the political climate at the time but never looks to go in depth and make some grandiose statement about the state of affairs in Europe. That is not his sentiment. Instead, he takes the natural climate of the times utilizing them for the sake of his narrative.

Things couldn’t be more delightful for them both in their encounter and yet the overcrowding is far from agreeable as an obnoxious neighbor in the attic (Michael Redgrave) unwittingly serenades the entire floor below him with an atrocious melody. It pales in comparison to the beautiful vibrato Ms. Froy was met with on her balcony nor is it quite as significant.

Of course, it’s Iris that Gilbert Redman really perturbs especially when she gets him ejected by the manager only to have him turn right back around and make himself at home in her suite. Thus, we have a bit of initial friction at home in a rom-com soon to be turned into a delightful mystery escapade with splashes of intrigue and absurdity.

The largest and most enjoyable leg of the adventure takes place onboard the train but it only works because of a seemingly inconsequential development. Iris is positively swimming after an ill-fated brick conks her on the temple and she is helped onto the train by Ms. Froy who tells her to rest up.

Iris obliges. Except when she awakens her lady companion is not in their compartment. She’s nowhere to be found. In fact, everyone that she interrogates corroborates that they never saw this kindly old lady. She must not exist. Just like that the game is afoot as our heroine endeavors to track down her friend and stave off the impending doubts that this woman was only a figment of her imagination.

It’s these perplexing developments that feel rather like a conspiracy. Still, it’s hardly that type of thing at all. It’s the very fact that all these people are humans — they’re selfish –with different self-serving motives for keeping up the charade. The clandestine couple with the man looking to stay conspicuous and a woman not minding a little bit of scandal.

The Cricket aficionados bent on getting to their match in time along with a whole host of others. Meanwhile, the psychiatrist (Paul Lukas) points out that Ms. Froy sounds vaguely like Freud and must simply be the inner workings of Irises subconscious. Of course, that’s only an easy way to explain away what is actually happening.

She likens Gilbert (Redgrave) to the dog that follows her around and it’s true he quite faithfully stays by her side even taking up the mantle of her investigation. Soon they’re traipsing around like a maladjusted Holmes and Watson, Redgrave going so far as to don a deerstalker as Lockwood coughs and passes him a pipe in utter parody.

They end up making quite a ruckus in the magician car full of hats, rabbits, and boxes with false bottoms and for the added fact that they get into a bit of a scuffle. But that’s only the beginning. Because, of course, what is a Hitchcock film without a little bit of international espionage? But once again he brings it into the world of tourists and well-to-do British subjects who have no right to be in such a scenario.

Factions form and the remaining passengers look to make a break for it amid a gunfight with foreign adversaries. Never before has there been such a droll reaction to a gunshot wound. A very Hitchcock moment without question.

The Lady Vanishes fits into the long lineage of Hitchcock with similarly high profile sequences from The 39 Steps (1935) to Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Strangers on a Train (1951), and North by Northwest (1959) but for the amount of time spent aboard, this picture is his most formidable train film.  It uses the very motion and sound of the steam engine to add crucial momentum to the plot.

Hitchcock speeds events to their conclusion and once more we find that in many cases our objective was utterly pointless, even throwaway, but it did give rise to one of the great thrillers of the 1930s. Part of the film’s unequivocal success comes from drawing equally from the wells of comedy and suspense. The laughs are ever present but far from being to the detriment of the drama they only augment the action, adding to the contours of our characters and pointing out the sheer ridiculousness found in this plotline. It’s wonderful.

4.5/5 Stars

Young and Innocent (1937)

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We meet the faces of a man and a woman bickering furiously. Another young man finds a limp body awash on the beach. He runs to get help but two young girls see his response of fleeing across the sand and believe what any normal person would believe. He’s leaving the scene of the crime. Their screams are personified by seagulls a fitting precursor to The Birds years later.

Soon film star Christine Clay covers the tabloids and the fellow finds himself on trial for murder. This is the groundwork for Young and Innocent and we have yet to even meet our heroine.

There’s a bubble-headed lawyer who’s a very nice sort but, nevertheless, a bit of a country bumpkin. Not much for such a high profile case. Thus, no one can blame the accused for fleeing the courtroom in a brief moment of tumult. Hitchcock even finds time to pose as a cameraman outside the courthouse. But more importantly, the wheels begin turning as the fugitive Tisdale calls upon the reluctant help of the local Constable’s daughter Erica Burgoyne.

Erica has become a bit of a matriarch in her family of boys and she’s learned to be a mother, a daughter, and so much more for her father and brothers. Yet soon she’s seemingly become an accessory to an assumed criminal in helping him escape. Because at the core of this story, is a variation on the Hitchcock motif. There are two innocent people on the run trying to get away including Erica who gets whisked away in the moment.

The MacGuffin set out for them to pursue is a purloined raincoat. With it comes the promise of exoneration of the wanted man. But outcomes are never that easy nor the road getting there. It leads to a row of diverting events from a brawl at a roadside rest stop with the local population of bums and even a kiddie birthday party where Erica crawls with anxiety for harboring a wanted criminal in her auntie and uncle’s home.

The story devolves into an entertaining cross-country chase, but in this particular case making its way through the countryside and to a proverbial abandoned mine shaft. These very quaint locales and the small town feel with bumbling policemen and bickering lads around the dinner table make this one feel like one of Hitchcock’s overtly “British” films or maybe one of his most stereotypically British efforts.

Some visual flourishes include a cliffhanger moment captured in typical jarring fashion and equally enjoyable is a fairly expansive crane shot that carries us through a hotel focusing on a certain person in question. Our plucky protagonist has called upon the services of an old hobo to identify the man who contacted him — the man undoubtedly implicated in the murder. Such a scene is pure Hitchcock, directing our gaze in such a way that the image he places in front of us is unavoidable. There’s no doubting his intention and he lays everything out for a fine conclusion.

Blackface aside as a horrible cultural anachronism, this picture comes off well today with Nova Pilbean coming into her own as a charming protagonist who boasts smarts and a disarming drive even as she gets whisked along.  Previously she played a crucial role in Hitchcock’s earlier thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much, but here she’s one of the undisputed stars and she and Derrick De Marney have a solid chemistry working. Of course, it’s not that customary to come to a Hitchcock picture for true romance. Still, Young and Innocent is indubitably worthwhile for aficionados of “The Master of Suspense.”

3.5/5 Stars

 

Review: The 39 Steps (1935)

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With The 39 Steps, it’s possible to witness Alfred Hitchcock coming into his own and one of the most obvious markers are numerous motifs, character archetypes, and techniques that would crop up in his work again and again. But it’s also conceivable to trace the influences of this film in most every spy-thriller-comedy-romance that has ever come in its stead.

Like The Man Who Knew Too Much the year before, this picture takes little time to get going and Hitchcock strings scenes together in such a way that the narrative is constantly on the move. Our modern sensibilities might tell us that his picture is rushed but it’s unquestionably interesting. It’s equally likely that we might believe other scenes are too slow. And yet he really does offer up a wonderful thriller that maintains a driving force of suspense. The key is balancing the more complacent moments with great jumps and leaps in story that both work to keep us simultaneously engaged and off balance.

He rather brilliantly cuts from scene to scene giving us just enough information to grow invested in his man-on-the-run spy thriller that looks vaguely familiar. In fact, it’s easy to see the groundwork for Cary Grant’s Roger Thornhill from North by Northwest (1959) in Robert Donat’s own credible characterization. In many ways, it’s a humbler version of the later cross-country epic trading the vast expanses of North America for the quaint and still majestic United Kingdom. We even are treated to one of Hitchcock’s original blondes in Madeleine Carroll and like all his greatest stories, he uses the seemingly useless plotting device, the so-called MacGuffin, as the motor to his narrative.

The action opens in a music hall where a lively performance is going on in front of a rowdy crowd and the festivities showcase the rather unbelievable phenomenon of Mr. Memory, among other acts. But in typical Hitchcock fashion a gunshot goes off and pandemonium breaks loose.

In a moment, we’re shown the outside of the venue and our hero Richard Hannay finds his hand being held by a frightened woman. Hitch moves the action forward on this coincidental meeting and never ceases from that point on. You see, this woman is connected with the international spy world. She gives a vague notion of her business but what isn’t vague are the men who are looking to kill her or the subsequent knife found in her back.

It’s yet another thrust forward in the film that sends Donat hurtling toward Scotland, the location where his female visitor noted her contact was located in. But equally telling is her warning to watch out for a man missing the tip of his finger. So, of course, in perfect Hitchcock fashion, in a completely ludicrous turn of events, the double chase is on. Both the authorities and the bad guys are after this innocent man. One for the murder attributed to him and the others for the knowledge that he now has.

From this point onward the almost picaresque plot is continuously streamlined and functions on a subsequent row of fascinating scenes and locales that all could work as separate entities entirely. First, he’s riding aboard the Flying Scotsman jumping free of the train to evade capture. Then, Hannay is holed up in the home of a gruff farmer and his sympathetic wife in the Scottish Highland. He meets the big man face to face and gets away with his life only through sheer coincidence. Next, he unwittingly ends up giving a stirring speech to the local electorate about their obligation to live a life of brotherly love before getting whisked away by the authorities.

Subsequently, he finds himself handcuffed with one of his earlier acquaintances from aboard the train (Madeleine Carroll). The fact that they despise each other perfectly highlights the best comedic elements of The 39 Steps as they bicker and struggle to keep their cuffs inconspicuous moonlighting as newlyweds.  This section of the film hearkens to some similar moments in the screwball comedy of the prior year It Happened One Night and it doesn’t hurt that Donat has a mild resemblance to Clark Gable. He happens to whistle a lot too.

Still, this is a Hitchcock thriller and it takes them through the moors of Scotland, their fleeing feet masked by bleating sheep and their mutual distaste finally traded for a general amount of concern. You might say they grow on each other. Yet that does not take away from the bottom line.

Government secrets of the utmost importance are about to be smuggled out of the country and they haven’t the faintest idea how it is to be done. Surprise, surprise, we end up in a packed London Palladium where everything must come to fruition. By this point, we hardly know how we got where we are as an audience and when it’s all over there’s more than a few questions — maybe even a few objections — but there’s no doubt that the 39 Steps is a clinical exhibition in the art of the spy thriller.

Although his actors would arguably become more prestigious (though Donat and Carroll are no slouches) and his whole productions more impressive, it’s decidedly difficult to deny the sublime vision that courses through the film. It could really function as several films all in under an hour and a half and yet ultimately it comes off unequivocally as one picture. It’s not simply one of Hitchcock’s finest British efforts, it’s a high watermark in any conversation of his oeuvre.

If you desire even a single moment of pure ingenuity look no further than the interlude when the maid comes into the murdered woman’s flat. We expect to hear her bloodcurdling screams as she turns toward the camera but instead, we are met with the high-pitched screeching of the train as Donat idly sits now miles away. In the hands of another director, this whole sequence might have slogged on. Hitchcock makes it positively gleam with possibility and that’s indicative of the whole picture.

4.5/5 Stars

 

 

Blackmail (1929)

Blackmail_1929_Poster.jpgIn one sense Blackmail proves to be a landmark in simple film history terms but it’s also a surprisingly frank picture that Hitchcock injects with his flourishing technical skills. It’s of the utmost importance to cinema itself because it literally stands at the crossroads of silent and talking pictures and holds the distinction of being one of Britain’s first talkies.

So close did it ride the lines, in fact, that two versions were released. It was initially supposed to be a full-fledged silent until it was requested that Hitchcock update the production to follow the tides of the times.

Far from being hampered by the transition, Hitch takes everything in stride and delivers a story that is pure cinema. It means simply that the film functions as a visual narrative. Still partially silent, yet using dialogue, and utilizing all the tools at his disposal to develop the greatest impact to reach his audience.

The story is simple really, about a young woman named Alice (Anny Ondra, future wife of German boxing icon Max Schmeling) who’s having a bit of a rough time with her boyfriend who’s on the police force. Still, she’s trying to make it work but another man has taken her fancy. He’s an artist and he uses the excuse of showing her his work as a pretense to get her up in his room. We all have an inclination of what might happen next. She’s taken advantage of and Alice has no recourse but to defend herself.

A conniving low-level conman is looking for an easy bit of blackmail and the policeman goes to great lengths to protect his girl but she herself is struggling with her guilt with what happened. Her nerves cannot take the constant strain because she was never meant for such circumstances. She’s hardly a bad person. In fact, she has no reason to feel remorse because, in the film’s candid portrayal of the artist’s less than honorable intentions, it’s easy to sympathize with Alice.

What makes the picture extraordinarily refreshing is that Hitch never relies too heavily on dialogue although it was the newest technology. He seems to already have an intuitive sense of how it can be used in cadence with the moving image. He can still make a film that for sequences is much like a silent picture and far from detracting from the story he is developing it further. It only serves to bring out more of the story whether it be the atmosphere or certain amounts of character development.

The local gossip chattering on and on about the murder and how she would never use a knife no matter the provocation but we are also privy to the young woman’s reaction shots as the word “knife” reverberates through her consciousness. Even in that moment, the dialogue underlines her inherent guilt and the further moral dilemma she has been put in.

Hitchcock’s already resorting to using memorable locales, in this case, The British Museum to make his chase sequences pop with character. You might say this is even an obvious precursor to Vertigo (1958) with a chase sequence that takes off across the rooftops of the museum.

But the ending comes with a bit of fateful luck that’s simultaneously darkly comic in quintessential Hitchcock fashion. It’s the perfect punctuation on a film that spun on an unfortunate split second altercation and it just as easily fell back on track with another such moment of good fortune. It’s the director’s way of teasing his audience in a sense and he’s very good at it — mingling murder with wit.

3.5/5 Stars

Odd Man Out (1947)

Odd-man-out-posterIn my profession, there is neither good nor bad. There is innocence and guilt. That’s all. ~ Denis O’Dea as the Police Inspector

What Carol Reed did so impeccably with The Third Man and here in Odd Man Out is developing a very specific atmosphere. He made the worlds of Vienna and in this case, the unnamed avenues of Northern Ireland come alive not simply by developing the setting in such a way that’s full of character and intrigue but still managing to craft a compelling story within that very same framework. It sets the stage for numerous vivid individuals to come alive because all the contours are colored in and filled out for the audience to enjoy.

Particularly in Odd Man Out, you can visualize Reed taking a certain historical moment and broadening its scope. Because his story, based off a novel by FL Green, is really about the IRA in Ireland who some would call patriots and most would call terrorists. Even some of their fellow people. Still, the majority would shower them with indifference but that’s where the narrative finds its footing. It opens with the following interlude:

“This story is told against a background of political unrest in a city of Northern Ireland. It is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved.”

In this sense, a highly charged situation is pulled from its cultural subtext and Reed masterfully focuses on the universal aspects of the human experience that are found there. James Mason gives one of the most stirring performances of his career both vulnerable and strangely reserved. For much of the film he takes a back seat, almost working on the fringes of the storyline and yet it works quite well. I suppose in some ways, like Harry Lime, a couple years later, even when he’s not in the frame he’s of paramount importance because his name is on everyone’s lips.

The reason is this. Following his release from prison, Johnny has begun the planning stages of a bank heist in broad daylight. It’s never stated very explicitly but the assumption si that they need some capital to bankroll their cause. Still, Johnny and three buddies hold up the joint. But on the way back to the getaway car Johnny gets detained by a guard and a discharging gun leaves both men mortally wounded.

The whole film hinges on the aftermath of this even and the fact that this is a heist film is quickly forgotten because it surpasses the basic parameters of a crime movie destined for grander aspirations altogether. Look at it more closely and again and again Odd Man Out reiterates the fact that this is really about all people. Because any given conflict will always and forever elicit some sort of response from any single person. That’s how we are wired and one conflict will cause a ripple of interpersonal conflicts in any person who becomes involved. That’s where this film is coming from.

It’s such a classic menagerie of figures each with their own distinctiveness. Moments where they reveal even a very little bit about who they are. Whether it’s the old crone who invites the fugitives into her parlor only to call the cops of them. Maybe it’s a cabbie or a bar owner or a vagabond obsessed with birds who lives with a delusional painter. The story takes us through the bar halls, the streets, private homes, trams, carriages, churches, and wherever else the general public spends their waking hours. Much of Dublin’s Abbey Theater was called upon to star in the film and they certainly are a colorful lot.

At first, it was off-putting that the film sunk into almost hallucinatory territory as Johnny drifts in between delirium, visions, and bits and pieces of memories that all come to the fore as he struggles with his excruciating pain. The hourglass is slowly winding down. But his faithful love Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) is resolutely looking to save him from the clutches of the police and anyone else who might want to do him harm.

In one particularly stirring moment, Johnny can be heard recounting a few jumbled tidbits from 1 Corinthians 13:

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child, I understood as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things. Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

Meanwhile, Kathleen is seeking counsel with Father Tom and she seems to come to much the same conclusion. She opts for love over his religion because that is what she feels pulsing through her with all its overwhelming strength. Her faith is in her love. Nothing else.

It all culminates in a deadly finale. We could not expect anything less still that does not make the film’s conclusion any less jarring. Even today it’s a surprisingly candid denouement. There are no two ways about it. No ambiguity left. We know what fate befalls someone such as Johnny. This is a tragic human drama after all.

So in some scenes, it indubitably has twinges of film noir. Visually it’s indisputably noirish, atmospheric not only in lighting but with the additions of elements from pelting rain to falling snow. Still, the philosophy that runs through its frames feels far different than your typical hardboiled cynicism. There’s something else working here and that’s just a bit of what sets Odd Man Out apart from its various contemporaries. Johnny and Kathleen represent something slightly different. Still, it does beg the question, can their love (or charity) be their ultimate redemption?

Religious hard lining or legalism is hardly the answer and you could never possibly accuse someone like Father Tom of such a crime anyways. He seems a far more humble individual than that but that does put Kathleen’s decision as well as Johnny’s citing of the good book into some question as well. How far can you go in saying that love can be your salvation or does their need to be something further still? I guess you could say that’s the inner conflict in the hearts of many of these people who get involved: Love, charity, and innocence versus guilt.

4.5/5 Stars

Limelight (1952)

limelight 1The glamour of limelight, from which age must pass as youth centers 

A story of a ballerina and a clown… 

In Limelight it quickly becomes evident that Charles Chaplin was well aware of his own legend and how couldn’t he be? For years he had been held in the highest regards, loved by the masses worldwide as one of Hollywood’s founding royalty. He was at the center of the universe and the limelight was burning brightly around him.

I’ve recently been reacquainting myself with Chaplin’s early works most notably those that paired him with the indelible Edna Purviance as well as the gargantuan behemoth of a bully Eric Campbell. But Limelight is a major flashforward in his career, really at the end of it all. By now Chaplin is in his twilight years.

In fact, Limelight is one of his last prominent roles and the feature where he audaciously placed everything in the public eye–a picture that is unequivocally autobiographical in nature, accented with Chaplin’s own romantic dealings and tumultuous history from his entire career up to that point. And yes, he faced scandal in his later years, not simply for his past indiscretions but also more overtly for his political affiliations which unquestionably must have made him an easy target during the supercharged age of McCarthyism.

Still, in a simple heartfelt narrative once more, for one last time, Charlie Chaplin captured his audience. The title card reads much like his old silents would have in setting the scene. It’s 1914, back in the days when he was probably just making it big in real life. However, as Calvero, Chaplin is a washed-up comedian prone to alcoholism with a career that has suffered dearly. But in a moment of action, he saves an aspiring dancer (Claire Bloom) from a self-attempted suicide and from then on becomes a sort of guardian angel for the girl.

Calvero heeds the doctor and allows the girl to stay in his flat, away from the trauma and although it receives the ire of their landlady, he calls Thereza his wife in order not to cause a local stir. It’s one half human drama, other half stage production because while he looks to lift her spirits in any manner possible, he daydreams of his past forays in comedy. He was the man who could pull off a whole gag with a pretense of performing fleas and he had wall to wall crowds.

limelight 2But now no one’s there. The seats are empty, the aisles quiet, and he sits with a dazed look in his flat the only recourse but to go back to bed. It’s as if the poster on the wall reading Calvero – Tramp Comedian is paying a bit of homage to his own legend but also the very reality of his waning, or at the very least, scandalized stardom. It adds insult to injury.

Still, in real life and on celluloid he put up the front of respectability for people. Although he went through 5 wives and now has a young woman living in his home less than half his age, he believes that after all his years of experience, “a platonic friendship can be sustained on the highest moral plane” as he puts it.

And it’s true Calvero is perfectly civil. This isn’t some passionate romance though he does try and call Terry to action in other ways. Chaplin composed his scripts of many great lines, monologues and sonnets where he himself gets to deliver beautiful rhetoric and impassioned rallying cries of truth to anyone who is listening. In this case, it’s the girl who sits despairingly in her bed but it’s for everyone else too. It’s like he took the stalwart speech from The Great Dictator and economized it into smaller bite sized pieces (That’s the problem with the world. We all despise ourselves, There’s something just as inevitable as death. Life! Life! Life!).

But there is something rather tragically demoralizing about watching crowds walk out on Chaplin even if it’s his fictional alter ego because you get the sense that his once faithful viewing public undoubtedly did the same thing–driven by the tides of the times and their own fickle ways.

But even as his fictional self fades, he watches Thereza ascend to the top of the dancing world as a prima ballerina and she looks to take her beloved Calvero along with her. There’s a necessity in life to never subsist, never cease fighting that she learns from him and takes to heart. So the second half is the role reversal. He began as her good samaritan and now in her bounty, she looks to take care of him going so far as professing her love for him and her desire to get married.

limelight 3It’s important to know that he writes off such an assertion as nonsense and one can question whether this is Chaplin’s chance at revisionist history or more so an affirmation of his life’s actual trajectory–working through his current reality that the world questions (IE. Marrying a woman much younger than himself in Oona O’Neil who he nevertheless dearly loved).

It’s ingenious really because there’s positively no way not to empathize with him, no matter our position and as he always was a premier master at, Chaplin once more tugs at our heartstrings in a very personal way–pathos overflowing from his performance one last time. He casts himself as the great sacrificial martyr and stepping down from his post as one of the luminaries of the cinema, his legacy burning brightly in his wake.

It’s also easy to suspect the tragedy of the Blue Angel or the madness of The Red Shoes displayed for all to see on the center stage will reveal itself in due time but Chaplin allows himself go out on his own terms since he’s a master of his own fate, in the film at least.

He’s reflected on his life and deemed it as about as good as it can be. That’s enough. Whether it’s his earlier marital troubles, his current marriage, the criticisms of the public, or even a real or fabricated feud between himself and Buster Keaton if there ever was such a thing. It is all laid to rest. It’s like old times even as the new age begins.

4/5 Stars