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

Rear Window (1954): Visual Cinema and “Lisa”

 

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There are such a vast number of levels to appreciate Rear Window on and one of those is its impeccable use of sound as well as a score courtesy of Franz Waxman. In fact, it is quite easy to consider it as a film with a wholly diegetic soundtrack but it’s really a complicated weaving of sound orchestration playing against the images onscreen. For instance, against the credits, as the blinds come up, we’re met with the playfully cool jazzy beats of “Prelude and Radio” which proves to be in perfect juxtaposition with the deathly hot heatwave hitting Greenwich Village in the film’s opening moments.

We’re also inundated with all types of songs popular and otherwise which can be picked out of the story organically if you’re paying attention. Two of the most obvious additions are “That’s Amore” and then “Mona Lisa” which can be heard being sung by a group of party guests.

Whether or not it’s a slight nod to our heroine Lisa is up for debate but it’s also notable that she, in essence, receives her own theme song which is concurrently composed by the songwriter who lives in the courtyard that we come to know over the course of the film. It slowly involves from its nascent stages into a full-fledged tune that gains its wings once the romance between Lisa and our protagonist L.B. Jefferies has come into its own.

Obviously, beyond the elements of soundtrack Rear Window develops so immersive a world and Hitchcock expertly inserts us directly into the environment to the extent that we have no choice but to become involved in the whole ordeal. We are accomplices, if you will, in this viewing party of Jimmy Stewart’s.

It truly is an exhibition in the moving image because the film works so brilliantly with them. Certainly, it begins with the staging and the complex setup Hitchcock had to work with at Paramount Studios but there’s simultaneously the use of color cinematography, the lighting of the stages which sets the scene given the time of day, and common street noise that lends an almost imperceptible authenticity that we take for granted.

Furthermore, working with his long trusted photographer Robert Burks you see Hitchcock moving so fluidly and with so much purpose through the playground provided him. The camera captures objects with clear intention and a crispness that far from simply giving us the illusion of being in the space, in many ways, makes us feel like we are actually right there with Stewart looking out into the courtyard.

You also get the true essence of what visual filmmaking is because his powers of suggestion and even persuasion of the audience are impressed upon us by what he deems important. Hitchcock lays out nearly all of Stewart’s backstory not with clunky expositional dialogue but by giving us a wordless parade of his apartment while our protagonist sleeps. And the whole picture is a constant rhythmic cadence of being fed images followed by Stewart’s reaction shots. It’s Film at its primacy. Where two images put together are blessed with so much more meaning and suggestion than they could ever have alone.

But far from simply marveling at what Hitch has accomplished it’s far more miraculous that we become so enveloped in this story. It’s an admirable mystery plot chock full of tension that’s built up over time and successive shifts in perception, time of day, and personnel moving in and out of the complex. Our one commonality is Stewart stuck in that wheelchair with only his broken leg, his camera, and the neighbors to keep him entertained. They do far more than that.

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Rear Window’s A-Plot is a perplexing mystery thriller that we watch unfold with a systematic unraveling that’s unnerving in part because Hitchcock has orchestrated it all in a limited space. Furthermore,  he has handicapped his protagonist and the outsiders coming in are constantly causing us to second guess or reevaluate our assumptions be they the insurance agency nurse Stella, Jefferies’  policeman pal, or his best girl Lisa. Each character is at one point in opposition to Jefferies while also providing a sounding board for his cockamamie theories which start to bear the grain of truth. We get to be a part of it all.

The utter irony is that once more not only is Hitchcock’s villain atypical — in nearly all areas a seemingly unspectacular man — he’s also quite overtly styled after David O. Selznick. If you know anything about the producer he shares some resemblance with Raymond Burr and there’s no denying that Hitchcock was never fond of the other’s meddling. As much as I love the Rebeccas (1940) and his earlier American works if Rear Window was a representation of the hands-off approach to his filmmaking than I would have to side with him.

At least by this point in his career, there’s no denying that he projected a singular vision that could hardly be quelled by any individual. This is “Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window,” after all, as the opening credits proclaim.

However, the beauty of this picture is that it truly does stand up to multiple viewings and every repeated viewing offers up new depths or at least minor revelations that add an even greater relish to the experience.

In particular, are the underlining themes of romance. Because this is a film about love in all its many facets with each character or couple reflecting a certain permutation of what romantic love looks like.

The love stories are playing out in each compartment of the apartment complex. Miss Torso, the queen bee with the pick of the drones. She’s very much eye candy but in the final frames, we realize there’s more to her as her love comes back home from the army. There’s Miss Lonelyhearts who is desperately seeking love and yet has enough respect not to stoop below her dignity. It’s a song that lifts her out of her despair. The Newlyweds are still in the honeymoon phase and we never see them.

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Meanwhile, you have Stella providing her homespun philosophy that people shouldn’t overanalyze their situation. Jefferies is pushing back against any serious romance because in his estimation Lisa is far too perfect for him. Meanwhile, Lisa is left believing she can live in any world that Jeff is in. The list goes on and on.

But for the threads to be resolved that must become fully intertwined with the murder at its core because such an event calls for a response from our characters — at least our main ones. When Lisa sacrifices so much to show her love and devotion to him, he realizes how much he misjudged her character and perhaps more profoundly how dearly he loves her and never wants to lose her. He has made the transition from armchair philosopher and misanthrope to a man smitten with someone else. As long as he ditches the window watching he should be fine.

That leads us to another area of discussion. There’s a bit of a moral commentary present though Hitchcock doesn’t seem all that interested in those conclusions per se as much as he likes manipulating them for the sake of his drama. And yet like Vertigo four years later there is this unnerving sense that he is tapping into some of humanity’s darkest desires to watch and spy on others for pleasure without any consequence or any vulnerability on the part of the peeper.

That draws me to another aspect of the film that I’ve never really considered. Rear Window implicitly asks what it is to be a neighbor or at least what it is to live with neighbors. There’s very little in the realm of actual judgments except for the small condemnation that comes from the woman who lives just above the murderer after her yippy dog has been killed. What does she say?

You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘neighbors’! Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if somebody lives or dies! BUT NONE OF YOU DO.

What she provides is a heartfelt and searing indictment which is nevertheless lost in all the commotion whether it’s the big party going on across the way or the realization by our heroes that their theories about murder have been confirmed. It did make me consider even briefly if the so-called Great Commandment is to “Love Thy Neighbor,” what does that look like?

Far from peering in at other people and staying anonymous, it seems like it involves reaching out to others. In some ways, being vulnerable and candid — transparent even — so others feel comfortable entering into our lives. Like Stella says sometimes people need to go on the outside and look in for a change. If nothing else that breeds empathy.

Of course, if that was the case, there would probably have been no murder and that’s what we want right? Well, anyways, Rear Window still stands as my favorite Hitchcock picture and one of the most clinical and compelling thrillers of all time.  But you probably already knew that. If you did not I implore you to break both your legs if need be and go lock yourself in a room and force yourself to watch it right this minute.

5/5 Stars

Review: Dial M for Murder (1954)

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Dial M for Murder is talky and more dialogue-driven than a great many Hitchcock films but that’s partly because the environment is more conducive to that kind of storytelling as much as the fact that this murder story is adapted from a popular British stage production.

Like Rope (1948) or even Lifeboat (1944) before it, Dial M for Murder is for all intent and purposes a chamber piece that essentially takes place on one set: the drawing room of Tony and Margo Wendice.

But quite similar to its predecessors you also get the sense that Hitch approached this picture with a certain perspective and turned it into a technical puzzle to be solved. In typical Hitchcock fashion, he underlies even scenes that are seemingly stagnant with interesting accents. His frame is constantly filled in the foreground lending a certain depth to the picture that we can easily imagine as utilizing cutting-edge 3D technology.

Aside from his work with his frequent director of photography Robert Burks, he also put some obvious restrictions on himself in terms of location. Several of his decisions are fairly daring. Instead of having a whole courtroom sequence he elects to shoot it in a highly stylized fashion that while far from realism, still gets the essence of the story across in a matter of a few minutes.

However, he also has a sequence where two men are talking and the frame is broken up by a lamp and it takes the typical shot-reverse-shot paradigm and makes it more interesting. The same goes for the disconcerting high angles that he uses in multiple instances to depict the action unfolding as first the two accomplices plan out the ensuing events and then the police come onto the scene to investigate.

His preoccupation with the “Perfect Murder” crops up once more as a retired tennis player living off the fortunes of his beautiful young wife decides to murder her to maintain his lavish lifestyle. Her infidelities with an American mystery novelist and minor acquaintance are the pretenses for his actions — a perfect way to get all her money for himself.

But this isn’t a picture working on a moral level. As is often the case, Hitchcock seems far more invested in the mechanics of the actual murder and whether or not it can actually be pulled off and what it would all look like.

Tony (Ray Milland) soon has an old college chum embroiled in his plot with a healthy bit of blackmail and he has everything set up perfectly to get Margot (Grace Kelly) to stay at home while this phantom man will sneak into their flat and murder her. But it will come off as a freak accident and that will be the end of it. However, being a fighter, Grace Kelly doesn’t give up without a struggle and her husband now must cover all his tracks and events unfold much differently than he was expecting.

Milland plays the typically witty and rather sophisticated Hitchcock villain who is in one sense charming and extremely prone to moral turpitude. Grace Kelly is stunning as always and a sympathetic figure as the wife who finds herself the victim of a grisly attack and subsequently accused of a murder no thanks to her husband helping to dig her grave. Though it’s not her best performance next to such startling revelations as Rear Window (1954) and To Catch a Thief (1955), there’s no question that it helps to solidify her incomparable partnership with Alfred Hitchcock.

Robert Cummings role as a crime author is a necessity because it makes his spot-on guesswork certainly not plausible but more interesting. Because he’s simultaneously dreaming up a scenario and ironically convicting Milland with his cockamamie stories which are surprisingly close to the truth.

John Williams reprises his stage role and turns Dial M for Murder into a bit of a Columbo episode of ‘how is he going to catch him’ because this works best to Hitchcock’s advantage since he’s not necessarily interested in the shock but introducing the audience into the entire plot so they become invested and stringing them along with all the proceedings. In such a way, the suspense and the subsequent payoff can be as memorable as possible.

When Milland walks through the door at the end of the picture, it’s an unextraordinary, even everyday action, but Hitchcock has imbued that single event with so much meaning. As an audience, we are sitting with baited breath waiting to see if the key will turn in the lock. This is a film that ultimately is indebted to the rotary phone if only for its title. But it’s hard to beat Hitchcock and the future Princess Grace of Monaco.

4/5 Stars

The Thin Man (1934)

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“What were you doing on the night of October fifth, nineteen-hundred-and-two?” ~ William Powell as Nick Charles

“I was just a gleam in my father’s eye.” ~ Myrna Loy as Nora Charles

With The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammet successfully crafted several archetypes that go beyond the basic pulpy film noir standards that he also helped to define. Nick and Nora Charles were a cinematic power couple even before the word was in vogue and as their real life counterparts, William Powell and Myrna Loy were quite the pair in their own right being matched in a mind-boggling 14 films together.

The Thin Man became one of the most beloved pairings, helmed by W.S. Van Dyke and spawning a wildly popular series of sequels that continued throughout the 30s and 40s. At the very least it suggested that it was not so much the story lines but more so the characters that resonated with the general public.

It’s true that casting William Powell as Nick Charles was one of the hand in glove situations. He had a certain dashing even debonair quality with his pencil mustache perfectly thrown askew by the scenarios he gets himself into. Above all, he has a witticism or lithe quip handy for any given situation. He’s a real riot at dinner parties. One of those men who has a perpetual smirk on his face.

But Myrna Loy is just as impeccably cast as his fun-loving wife who is as game as he is to have a rip-roaring good time. She’s constantly keeping up with his droll wit while continually chiding him good-naturedly to get back into the amateur detective game.

For the time, with no children to speak of, their beloved wire terrier Asta (the famed Skippy who was also featured in other such classics as The Awful Truth and Bringing up Baby) rounds out their happy clan.

It really is a strategic depiction of marriage and family circa 1934. The Great Depression still had a fresh imprint on the nation and yet in Nick and Nora you see no indication of any such malaise.  Their days are spent drinking martinis and gallivanting around town while their nights are filled with fancy dinner parties and the occasional crime caper.

These forms have been so often parodied to this day but at the time it seems obvious that The Thin Man whether subconsciously or not was an escapist fantasy that indulged the desires of those less fortunate. Because if nothing else, they could at least spend some fun taking a load off and joining the Charles for an enjoyable evening. Everyone laughs. Cops and citizens have close knit connections. Excessive drinking is only a delightful diversion. The only ones who were in need were the slothful and the greedy.

Although The Thin Man employs admittedly incomprehensible plotting at times it’s hardly a knock. So many characters get thrown in and chatted about it becomes difficult to keep them all straight much less figure out what their bearing on the plot is. And it is the oddest cross section of individuals to be sure.

Much like The Third Man, this precursor, The Thin Man acts as a nifty MacGuffin in a pinch, driving the plot forward with his spectral presence. The fact he’s hardly on screen does not detract from his overall importance in this film. Meanwhile, his invested daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan), wife, mistress, and various other involved parties all get tossed around as culprits and accomplices including Porter Hall and Cesar Romero.

While not noir in the typical sense James Wong Howe’s photography does give the film certain dark sensibilities at times to contrast with the plethora of more comic moments in drawing rooms and the like. It also shares in the tradition of Agatha Christie and other such detective fiction narratives with bits of amateur sleuthing and all the subjects rounded up for a dinner party so the culprit might be revealed.

But what The Thin Man truly explored was the capabilities of crime when paired with comedy. In some sense here is a film where you have certain screwball aspects but I hesitate to call this film a true screwball just as I hesitate to call this a gangster picture though there are cops and thugs.

It’s that immaculate blending of comedy and crime that makes The Thin Man go down like a perfectly mixed martini. It was the charisma of Powell and Loy that allowed the series to exist well beyond the parameters of a one hit wonder.

4.5/5 Stars

Green for Danger (1947)

green-for-danger-2Green for Danger gives murder mysteries a good name because it is drawn up excellently but also with a degree of charm and that should not be taken too lightly or maybe it should. But either way, there’s no doubt that director Sidney Gilliat’s tale based off of a novel by Christianna Brand is quality entertainment.

Early on the fitting backdrop of wartime Britain circa 1944 is developed from a historical moment that is uniquely dynamic in its own right. The German V1 “doodlebug” rockets are raining down overhead leaving the Isles in rubble. In such an environment nurses and doctors must work continually to care for numerous patients in need of medical assistance. The most pivotal patient for the sake of this story is the seemingly unextraordinary postman Mr. Huggins. Complications on the operating table do not bode well for him and he doesn’t make it. Though it hardly seems the pretense for murder.

Still, some are not so sure. Namely, the suspicious Sister Bates and yet another murder, this time more blatant, gathers the attention of Scotland Yard and so they send one of their men over — our trusty narrator — the one and only Inspector Cockerill (Alastair Sim).

He dictates the entire story with a rather amused detachment, conducting his job with a certain degree of care but he doesn’t mind a laugh or two. It’s truly a delightful performance from Sim, playing the jocular inspector like we’ve never seen before. His is a dryly wicked wit and he’s even prone to little bits of physical antics. One moment he watches with the giddy satisfaction of a schoolboy as the doctors duke it out, making no effort to stop the violence. But he also makes full use of a pair of voluminous eyes that can shift between sly glances and glaring accusations whenever the change is called for.

green-for-danger-1He comes in and steals the film but he does have some enjoyable castmates to work off of. Dr. Barnes (Trevor Howard) the anesthesiologist and the suave surgeon Mr. Eden (Leo Genn) are both in love with the same girl and understandably so. The attractive Nurse Freddi (Sally Gray) is a real prize but only one among a taut nursing staff including the fragile Nurse Sanson and the always lively Nurse Woods (Megs Jenkins). Before the Inspector arrives on the scene they are the true backbone of the storyline and it’s confirmed early on that the murderer comes from within their ranks. The age-old puzzle is left, to decipher who the culprit is and for what nefarious purpose.

It’s hardly a spoiler to say that the revelation of the murderer and the reason for the murders is hardly the highlight of the film. Because although we are dragged along by our curiosity as we have been trained to do with such mysteries, engaging films such as Green for Danger have more depth than the simple patterns of intrigue with a big reveal at the end. Because once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all, or at least you won’t be surprised the next time around. But this rendition has enough life in its characters, specifically Sim, to work beyond a basic murder mystery plot.

It strikes me that British backdrops often serve as the best environments for Whodunits and the quintessential nature of this reality has to do with certain sensibilities that the British people generally embody. They are civilized, proper, and not prone to the same fits of drama as other people. There’s also a reason that film-noir is an American genre and not really English. That darkness seeps out more readily and uninhibited.

But the Whodunit can still function because, despite their outward exteriors, that does not mean the characters within this film cannot still stoop to jealous action and even murder. Green for Danger is a thoroughly enjoyable exercise in such themes.

4/5 Stars

Review: Chinatown (1974)

chinatown1Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown

The more you watch movies like Chinatown, the more you realize how much you’re still learning. I saw it the first time and I naively thought I knew everything about it. After all, it seemed fairly cut and dry. But the beauty of this film is a labyrinth-like story that can still keep me engaged after multiple viewings. There are things that I missed, things that I have to piece together once more, and more often than not details I simply forgot. Robert Towne’s script has an intricacy to its constantly spiraling mystery plot that remains powerful and Roman Polanski — with cameo included — directs the film with a sure hand as well as a cynically bitter ending worthy of his work. At that point, he was returning to the same city where a few years prior his wife Sharon Tate had been brutally murdered and that certainly had to still be heavy on his mind.

Throughout, Chinatown has elegant visuals of a desert dry Los Angeles circa 1930s, and it is aided by a smooth Jerry Goldsmith score made for such a period crime film as this. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), is the smooth-talking, smart-aleck P.I. with a penchant for trouble, but that goes with the business. In the tradition of all his heirs like Spade and Marlowe, the whole story is told from his point of view and we get the details at the same pace as him. That means a lot of the time we are just as confused as him, trying to pick up all the pieces.

Aside from Nicholson, Faye Dunaway’s performance is an interesting reworking of the archetypal femme fatale, because she has a different side to her. Also, John Huston’s performance is wonderfully nefarious, because he plays Noah Cross with a top layer of geniality that is ultimately undermined by his base nature. It’s wonderfully wicked.

In the story’s first few moments of being in his office, we begin to learn a little about the means Gittes uses to appease his clients. Then, his newest client walks through the door, a Mrs. Mulwray, who wishes for him to tail her husband. And so he does, just like that, and he’s pretty good at it too. Hollis Mulwray (an anagram for Mullholland) happens to be an integral part of the L.A. Department of Water and Power as the chief engineer. From what Gittes sees, the bespectacled Mulwray seems to have his scruples, but he also has a secret girl, who the P.I. is able to snap some incriminating photos of.

chinatown2Back at the office, another woman shows up, a Mrs. Mulwray, but this time the real one. She wants to slam J.J. with a lawsuit, but he realizes he got framed, and in the end, she quickly drops her case. Pretty soon Gittes former colleague Lt. Escobar digs up Mulwray’s body and the cause of death is the height of irony. He drowned during a drought, a cruel demise, and his body is joined by that of a drunk, who also was wandering around the local reservoir. It’s time for our nosy P.I. to do a little more snooping, but he is scared off by two security guards from Water and Power who give him a deadly nose job.

None worse for wear aside from a small cast, J.J. knows the department is diverting water. It’s more than a little runoff like they contend. He gets lunch with Noah Cross (The great John Huston), who is the father of Mrs. Mulwray and the former business partner of the deceased. Like J.J., he’s curious about finding the mysterious girl, and he sweetens the pot for the P.I.

A bit of detective work takes Gittes to the hall of records and then a vast acreage of orange groves where he is mistaken for a member of the Department of Water and Power. They aren’t too happy to see him, but Mrs. Mulwray is able to bail him out. They check up on an assisted living home and tie it into the whole conspiracy. Someone is buying up land under the names of the unknowing residents.

chinatown3But as it turns out, Mrs. Mulwray is hiding a major secret of her own that she’s been keeping. Another girl is murdered and since he’s found at the crime scene, Gittes is in a tight spot with a police and so he wants to get thing straightened out. But he doesn’t quite understand what he’s gotten himself caught up in. At the last minute, he decides to take the heroes path, but it’s to no avail. The good is snuffed out, the bad walk away free, and corruption still runs the streets of L.A. There’s not much the cops can do about it either.

chinatown4So many people remember the films final words which epitomize this place of confusion, corruption, and helplessness. The final words of Jake are just as illuminating, however, because he repeats the words he spoke to Mrs. Mulwray earlier when she asked what he did when he worked a beat in Chinatown, “As little as possible.” It’s so pessimistic and yet it’s the truth that everybody knows. He must resign himself to doing nothing because there is no way he can win, no way to overcome the forces that be. It’s a haunting conclusion, but ultimately the most powerful one we could hope for.

Earlier I alluded to the fact that every time I watch this film I pick on things that I missed before. For instance, within Robert Towne’s script are some interesting instances of foreshadowing. The first comes in the form of a pun uttered by the Chinese gardener who is constantly muttering, “It’s bad for the glass/grass.” Then, while they are in the car Mrs. Mulwray dejectedly drops her head on the steering wheel and it lets out a short honk. This acts as an important portent to the end of the film along with the blemish in her left eye. If you have not seen the film yet, this might sound very cryptic, but if you keep your eyes open these little details are rewarding. Chinatown is a fascinating place to return to again and again after all.

5/5 Stars

Review: Vertigo (1958)

Vertigo_1958_trailer_embrace“The Greatest Film of All Time.” It certainly seems like an arbitrary title, but if nothing else it gives film aficionados something to discuss. And that’s what Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is now being called for many reasons. Rather than join the debate, I wish to take a few moments to acknowledge what makes the film itself special.

On the surface, shall we say the first viewing, Vertigo is thoroughly enjoyable as a psychological thriller and mystery. The title sequence is haunting with an eye staring back at us from behind the credits and as an audience we are quickly thrown into the action, watching the opening chase scene unfold. In only a few moments one man is dead and the other John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) now has debilitating vertigo that takes him off the police force. We never learn why they were chasing a man on the rooftops. It doesn’t really matter. It’s a time later with his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) that we first see Scottie after the harrowing events. She obviously cares deeply for him, and he sees her simply as a good friend so we can undoubtedly expect her to be in the film more.

Then, rather mysteriously, an old school acquaintance named Elster (Tom Helmore) calls up Ferguson, hoping to get him to shadow his wife. It has nothing to do with infidelity, but fear, because the worried husband believes that something is wrong with his wife Madeleine. She disappears for hours at a time and is barely conscious half the time. He would describe her as possessed and Scottie is noticeably skeptical. But he relents and agrees to tail her sending himself spinning headlong into a mystery that will become his obsession.

Vertigo_1958_trailer_NovakHe gets to know Madeleine by following her, all throughout the streets of San Francisco, and much like Rear Window, this part of the film becomes a repetition of scenes followed by the reactions of Stewart. Hitchcock’s background in silents is seemingly at work here as he lets the images and score of Bernard Hermann take center stage along with Stewart’s expressions. We end up all over, from a flower stand to a cemetery, an art museum, and an old hotel. Madeleine goes from place to place like a solemn specter and we watch in expectation. Something must happen.

In an instant, she leaps into the water near the Golden Gate to commit suicide and that’s when Scottie swoops in to rescue her. He can’t lose her now because by this point he’s entranced by the icy blond who he only knows from a distance. And so their relationship progresses if you can call it that. They wander together and Madeleine shares her nightmares with Scottie.

The two of them head to San Juan Bautista and that’s when the nightmares become a reality for both of them. It’s devastating to Scottie, and the second phase of the film begins. He’s inconsolable and madly in love with this girl he cannot have. She’s hardly real. But then wandering the streets listlessly he spies Judy Barton, who coincidentally looks strikingly like Madeleine.

So he does the only thing that he can think of, meet her and try to turn into the girl he so desires. His obsessions are the only things that drive him, that and the haunting memories. Finally, he figures out the mystery, but the swirling cycle continues as he goes back to San Juan Bautista. A cruel twist of deja vu rears it’s ugly head once more.

Vertigo_1958_trailer_Kim_Novak_at_Golden_Gate_Bridge_Fort_PointHitchcock always was one for visual showmanship and it reveals itself whether it’s the parallel symbolism that Scottie notes in the painting of Carlotta Valdes or the out-of-body dream sequence that he suffers through. There’s also the dizzying zoom creating the so-called Vertigo Effect whenever Stewart looks down from a great height. These are obvious visual flourishes, but it’s almost more interesting to watch our main characters walk the streets of San Francisco, especially since there are so many real landmarks to work with (ie. Golden Gate, Mission San Juan Bautista, Muir Woods National Monument, and the Coit Tower among others). There’s something mesmerizing and trance-like about all these scenes that’s difficult to discount. It pulls us in as an audience. We want to see more. Bernard Hermann’s score is, of course, noteworthy and at its core, there is a constant disconcerting quality. It is strangely majestic and beautiful, but it pounds away menacingly. And it spirals in and out with the same sounds, the same crescendos. You think you would get sick of it, but strangely enough, you don’t. It enraptures us.

Vertigo_1958_trailer_embrace_2Then there are the players. Kim Novak has the dual role as Madeleine and Judy. She carries out both with the needed precision. Elster’s wife is elegantly beautiful, aloof and ethereal in a way that makes her the obvious fantasy of Stewart’s character. When she casts a sidelong glance or stares up at Stewart there is a faraway quality in her eyes. The clothes. The hair. How she talks. Even how she carries herself. She is spellbinding, otherworldly, and almost unattainable in all ways. Then there’s Judy, the epitome of a Midwestern girl. Pretty but not elegant. Smart but not cultured. But she falls for Ferguson as he falls for an impossible ideal.

Vertigo_1958_trailer_Stewart_on_a_laddderJames Stewart is an important piece in this film because it’s his character’s obsession that drives the plot. His instabilities, his desires, his anguish, his vertigo. It has been said that Stewart himself is a stand-in for Hitchcock and the own inner workings of the director’s being. His obsession and lusts. That may be true but something else that could be inferred is that Stewart is really a stand-in for all of us. After all, there was no greater every man than him, but there also is a universal quality to the baggage weighing on his being. Stewart’s every man is certainly being subverted, or could it be he is becoming a more accurate depiction of everyone? It’s a scary thought but what is buried inside of us? What are our own fantasies, obsessions, and lusts that lurk under the surface? Let me put it a different way.

For Stewart, he has three prominent women in his life. There’s the fantasy in Madeleine, the perfect ideal, who will ultimately ruin his life because intimacy with her is impossible. There’s Judy who has a passionate love for him, but it seems complicated in so many ways. She’s trying to measure up to his standards. The ideals and fantasies he has created poison what they could have. Then, there’s Midge who is practical, funny, and also completely devoted to Scottie. If his head were on straight he would go right to her because he would undoubtedly find the most satisfaction in that relationship, but his obsessions have undermined that.

There was an alternate ending of the film which showed Scottie with Midge once more, listening on the radio about Elster’s capture. The ending that was kept is more powerful, not because Elster got away scotch free, but because we don’t see Midge again. She all but disappears by the end of the film and with her goes all that could have been decent and good about reality for Scottie. He gets so caught up in fantasy and that tears his life apart. He’s literally spiraling in a web of never-ending hellish obsession.  Who knows what becomes of him? We can only guess.

5/5 Stars

The Pink Panther (1963)

Pink_panther63I came into the Pink Panther with a bit of prior knowledge about the franchise and Henry Mancini’s legendary theme music. In all honesty, the first film I ever saw in the series was A Shot in the Dark (1964). Peter Sellers‘ Inspector Clouseau is the undisputed star of that film which came out only a year later.

That’s why this initial installment from Blake Edwards was rather surprising, to begin with. This is a David Niven vehicle with him playing a modern Don Juan of sorts who also is a world renown thief known as “The Phantom.” He and his female accomplice have their eye on the equally well-known diamond christened the Pink Panther. It now is in the possession of a beautiful young princess (Claudia Cardinale), but the people of the country believes the diamond belongs to them. Into this seemingly serious story of theft and international relations waltzes in the ever-bumbling but good-natured Inspector Clouseau.

Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven) has his eyes on Princess Dala, surveying her every movement. What he doesn’t know is that his young nephew (Robert Wagner) is up to some tricks of his own, and he flees the United States in search of his uncle. Clouseau leaves France with his lovely wife Simone (Capucine) and follows the princess to a ski resort to see if he can sniff out the culprit. They turn out to be a lot closer than he realized.

It’s during a chaotic masquerade ball when the diamond is in jeopardy, with several costumed apes having their eyes on it. The bumbling Clouseau clumsily tries to set a trap, and yet he unwittingly stumbles upon the culprits leading to a chaotic car chase. In fact, The Pink Panther has a rather odd ending with the culprits getting away and Inspector Clouseau getting the blame. Don’t be too worried, however, because Sellers brought the character back numerous other times.

Despite being initially relegated to a supporting role, there is no doubt that Sellers steals his scenes with his ad-libbing and numerous brilliant pieces of slapstick. He might be stepping on his Stradivarius in the dark or getting his hand jammed in a beer stein.  It’s all the funnier when everyone else is playing the scenes relatively straight. There were some other humorous sequences of deception as the culprits try and pull the wool over the Inspector’s eyes. It’s not all that difficult because he’s an utter buffoon. But lovable. Did I mention that?

3.5/5 Stars

Phantom Lady (1944)

PhantomladyThe film uses the motif of a mysterious lady who cannot be found as the jumping off point for this Film-Noir. It is this so called phantom lady who Scott Henderson (Alan Curtis) meets at a bar after having a spat with his wife. They lift each others spirits and part ways. Returning home, he is met by the police inspector (Thomas Gomez), who found that Henderson’s wife was strangled to death. Scott is the prime suspect and now he needs his alibi which seemed so airtight before.

She truly has vanished and no one remembers her so Henderson is on the verge of the death penalty. It is his smitten secretary Carol (Ella Raines) who takes up his cause. She retraces his steps interrogating a bartender and wheedling information out of a puny drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.). Soon an old friend (Franchot Tone) of Scott’s returns from South America and everything gets a little more interesting.

Phantom Lady stars a cast of only a couple recognizable names, however Robert Siodmak does a decent job at making this noir interesting and it is certainly worth a watch.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Rear Window (1954)

Hitchcock_stills_0006_rear-windowWho in their right mind would make a film that takes place in a courtyard? Rear Window has always been fascinating from a technical standpoint, and Alfred Hitchcock is certainly not “The Master of Suspense” for nothing. He uses the confined space of a single Greenwich Village courtyard with an incapacitated individual to truly build the tension to immeasurable heights. The events within the film are often highly bemusing as Hitchcock has a wicked sense of humor, whether Jefferies is trying desperately to scratch that itch or the conversation turns morbid as he tries to eat breakfast.

The script has so many great little moments of back in forth repartee; some supplied by the always dynamic Thelma Ritter who plays the nurse with a lot of advice and opinions about rear window ethics: “We’ve become a race of peeping toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes, sir. How’s that for a bit of home-spun philosophy.

James Stewart is always a pleasure, but this time around he is perhaps at his most constrained as famed photographer L.B. Jefferies, who is laid up in his apartment for weeks on end with a leg in a cast. He got the injury thanks in part to his last big photo shoot where he ran in front of an oncoming race car. With nothing better to do, he spends his idle moments people watching and getting to know his neighbors. That’s one way to put it at least. As an actor, Stewart is stuck and relegated to conveying his whole performance through his gaze and the dialogue he speaks to those few who come in and out to see him. Most of what he’s doing is simply looking across the way and yet it works.

His neighbors are as follows:

There’s Ms. Torso who is an aspiring dancer and always the target of many men. There’s Ms. Lonelyheart who never can find the love she so desires. A washed-up composer spends the entire film trying to figure out his newest project (even getting a visit from Hitchcock himself). There are the newlyweds who hardly ever leave their bedroom because they’re doing something… Then, comes the older couple on the second floor with a cute little dog and the sculptor who lives below.

Most interesting of all is the couple directly across the way from Jefferies’ because that’s where a long-suffering husband and his wife live. All seems normal, to begin with, however, Jefferies begins to have his suspicions thanks to circumstantial evidence and no sign of Mrs. Thorwald. His first thoughts immediately shoot to murder, but it seems highly unlikely. Day and night he continues to watch seeming to get more evidence, only to have his theories crushed, and then gain new hope through more evidence.

James_Stewart_in_Rear_Window_trailerThe interesting part is that as an audience we are fully involved in this story. We see much of the picture from Jefferies’ apartment, because there is no place to go, and so we stay inside the confines of the complex. In this way, Hitchcock creates a lot of Rear Window‘s  plot out of actions occurring and then the reactions that follow. We are constantly being fed a scene and then immediately being shown the gaze of Jefferies. It effectively pulls us into this position of a peeping tom too. Danger keeps on creeping closer and closer as he discovers more and more. The narrative continues to progress methodically from day to night to the next day and the next evening.

In the climactic moments, he finally faces the man who he always looked in at from the outside and yet by the end the roles are reversed with Jefferies space being fully invaded, and yet he can do little to flee, because of his cast. Hitchcock cuts it in such a choppy and chaotic way which breaks with the smooth continuity of the rest of the film, but it works so wonderfully in stark juxtaposition.

This is one of the main appeals of Rear Window because it has this Hitchcockian story of murder, mystery, and suspense. However, I am constantly eager to revisit this story, since there are so many other intricacies that are of interest.

Although the film uses a score by Franz Waxman, the majority of the sounds heard are diegetic and they either are street noises or music wafting around the courtyard from one of the apartments.  Also, there is only one small outlet to the outside world. At times, it becomes fun to survey what is going on whether it is kids playing on the street corner or cars passing back and forth. It builds this sense of realism suggesting that this world that has been created is larger than this one set full of apartment buildings.

Another important element is themes of romance and love. Jefferies comes into the film with issues in his own love life. His girl is the elegant and refined Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), who seems perfect, too perfect in his estimation. In his mind, they just don’t seem compatible enough, and he cannot see marrying her. It’s something they have to work through because she truly loves him.

Really every character essentially has a different outlook on love and different struggles, because romance is never an easy thing. Like the lyricist’s song, it is so often fragmented, but in their case, Jefferies and Lisa seem to figure things out just as the song finally gets finished. The moment where you can see it in Jefferies’ face that he is both impressed and worried for Lisa’s safety seems to be the time when things change. He realizes his love for her since she is very dear. He quits his thinking and his analyzing of their relationship, as gut-wrenching emotions take over when she is caught. In a sense, he listens to Stella’s earlier advice: “Look, Mr. Jefferies, I’m not an educated woman, but I can tell you one thing. When a man and a woman see each other and like each other they ought to come together – wham! Like a couple of taxis on Broadway, not sit around analyzing each other like two specimens in a bottle.”

Wendell Corey, in his supporting role as Jefferies’ friend and the police detective, is a man who can be a skeptic and still prove his loyalty as a friend. They can be at odds and still poke fun at each other with mutual affection. It feels real. Raymond Burr as the villainous Lars Thorwald works well too because he is certainly an angry, unfriendly grouch, but he does not seem altogether evil. It shows how easy it is for the lines to be blurred.

rear-window-first-shot-of-gkAbove all, Grace Kelly shines opposite Jimmy Stewart. There’s no one quite like her, so elegant, eloquent, with a touch of playfulness and adventure. She is willing to fight for her man and even go out on a limb for him (ie. breaking into Thorwalds’ apartment). One of the film’s most extraordinary images, out of many, has to be when a shadow covers the face of Stewart as he rests. Then there is a close-up of Kelly, her face slowly descending towards him. It’s hard to forget and for the rest of the film, she attempts to not let him forget her.

It’s not often easy for me to make statements like this, but Rear Window has to be close to my favorite film of all time. Yes, I said it. It never gets old for me, and I pick out new things every time. It’s more than just a mystery thriller. Hitchcock made it a technical marvel that is also steeped in themes of love and ethical questions. The players are the best of the best from James Stewart, to Grace Kelly, to Thelma Ritter, all down the line. It’s at times deliberate, but never boring, completely immersing the viewer into this drama as a firsthand witness. It’s the type of cinema we just don’t get every day because it has everything and it cuts to the core — to the most visceral level. That is the sign of cinematic greatness.

5/5 Stars