(Obsessed with) Vertigo (1958)

As a family we’ve got into the habit of watching a ‘quality’ film on Saturday nights. It can be new, old, critically acclaimed, a cult classic or something we have watched and enjoyed in the past. The broad idea is to give The Boy a sort of education in cinema, and on most occasions titles he might ordinarily have scorned instead become sources of delight. A great success recently was Huston’s The Maltese Falcon, the sort of film in which things are happening all the time, often at a rapid fire pace, and it’s good fun throughout. 12 Angry Men – loved it. Who doesn’t? Of the more recent offerings, we tried Point Break, which is showing its age a bit now but still holds up as an action spectacular.

This weekend it was the turn of Vertigo, my son’s choice having sampled two previous Hitchcock winners in Strangers on a Train and Psycho (the latter, once we got past that scene, which everyone has seen often out of context, ramps up the tension afterwards and found him helplessly caught in the suspenseful mastery). Vertigo is a tougher nut, of course. It divides this house. I adore it. Mrs Mike finds it a bit boring, and it’s quite permissible to have that kind of reaction. On this occasion, the magic didn’t happen. The Boy lasted for about half the film before conceding defeat and walking away, a reaction I thought could happen as it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Vertigo is saddled with the tag of being in many quarters the greatest film of all time. Personally I’m not even sure it’s Hitchcock’s best, though it’s certainly one of a select number of titles that could qualify, but all said whilst a masterpiece it is of the slightly flawed vintage. There are moments, notably the film’s climax, which for me come across as a little on the clunky side, and remain reasons why some critics think it doesn’t quite deserve the exalted status it’s achieved. And yet, when The Boy announced last week that he was selecting Vertigo for our Saturday night movie I admit that I looked forward very much to seeing it again. In the build-up, I listened to Bernard Herrmann’s astonishing score several times. It’s possibly my favourite of them all, of any film soundtrack. Watching it, on my own for the film’s second half, I wallowed in it, the colours brought to vibrant life in its HD transfer. The restoration was so good that it looked as though it could have been released a month ago, rather than sixty years in the past. When I was done I was tempted to go back to the start and catch it all over again, and I can easily picture myself not finishing this piece without another viewing.

It’s a film that I have often wanted to talk about on these pages but at the same time am apprehensive. I would like to find the words that do it justice, capturing what it is about Vertigo that holds an endless fascination for me, and it’s possible I’m not up to the task. It holds the sort of allure that tempts me into booking a ticket to San Francisco so that I can do a pilgrimage of the city, wander in the footsteps of Scotty and Madeleine around its old haunts, like the former do it at five in the morning in the hope of capturing some of its lonely, dreamlike quality, and obviously there would be little point. It’s a different city to the one shown in the film, and many of the locations simply don’t exist now. But I don’t need to do any of that to appreciate and love the picture, one that has every bit as troubled a history as the events it depicts. As bizarre as it seems for such a critically acclaimed work, it’s  worth bearing in mind that contemporary minds did not feel the same way about it, citing Vertigo as indulgent, all over the place, carrying an elusive message that was not realised successfully. Too long. Too slow. Critics had a problem with the film’s twist being explained with a third of it still to run, apparently not ‘getting it’ that its murder mystery elements weren’t really the point. For some years, it wasn’t possible to see Vertigo at all. While not a commercial failure it wasn’t a success, and along with several other titles it was held by the Hitchcock estate until after his death, and even then it was another chunk of time before the film was restored to its present glory.

For my part, I had a similar reaction to The Boy upon my first experience of Vertigo. Screened by Channel 4 in the 1980s as part of a lengthy season of Hitchcock films, back when they still had seasons, it lacked the obvious qualities of other entries that came loaded and taut with sweet suspense. It has since risen to become one of those movies I dust off broadly once per year, and oddly enough I enjoy it more with each watch. Explaining why is a tougher prospect. There are of course the traditional elements, the happy coincidence of director, cast and crew all working at the top of their respective games, and when you’re talking about the Hollywood gold that contributed to Vertigo that’s some game. You can start with thinking that the music makes it, especially because Herrmann’s prelude and the musical accompaniment to the rooftop scene are so strong. The photography is ravishing, another Hitchcock regular Robert Burks on top form and utterly eclipsing the Oscar winning work he put in for To Catch a Thief. He wasn’t nominated for Vertigo, which in hindsight seems like a criminal act because it really doesn’t get any better than this. Whether shooting James Stewart in centre frame sat in his car, then switching to the actor’s perspective as he tracks the languorous progress of Kim Novak’s iconic green Jaguar, or the riot of colour that explodes with the visit to the flower store, it’s a thing of staggering beauty. I would love to visit the Palace of Fine Arts, but I fully expect that seeing it in real life wouldn’t capture the otherworldly romanticism with which Burks shot it in the film.

Hitchcock felt that Stewart’s advancing years made him a less than convincing love interest for the much younger Novak, yet it’s in retrospect that we can appreciate it’s exactly this quality that makes his character’s story so tragic – all those wasted years, the ‘make do’ option of Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), the chance of happiness with Novak’s Madeleine that’s snatched, brief and elusive, and will haunt him forever, the startling ice blue in his eyes that adds a maniacal aspect to his obsessive, doomed pursuit. As for Novak, I remember writing a piece some time ago about Strangers When We Meet (that I have since lost, because I’m good like that), which turned into something of a worship at her feet. No doubt a hard hitting title by 1960 standards, Novak stood out amidst a distinguished cast as the woman trapped by her own beauty, doomed to be hit upon and defined by her sexuality forever. The actor and director Richard Quine were frequent collaborators, so you would imagine he knew how to use her to best effect by this stage, but Hitchcock had one attempt and coaxed this performance out of her. While you can interpret the Hitchcockian motive behind Stewart’s efforts to reproduce his lost bleached blonde love before he will love her however you want, the truth is she’s every bit as transfixing as Scottie finds her. The camera loves watching Novak, with her (apparently not feigned) physical awkwardness, the inner turmoil, her vulnerability. And she wasn’t even the first choice, Vera Miles having dropped out when she became pregnant. What a break. I’m genuinely not sure if I have ever seen a better job of acting than the one Novak produced here. It seems so natural, perhaps an innate quality that Hitchcock was able to tap into.

As I mentioned earlier I don’t think it’s a perfect movie. The standard’s so high that the false notes tend to stick out, though they’re few and far between. I do happen to believe it’s almost as good as the moving image ever tends to get, however. Sure there are pacier films, where stuff happens more quickly so that you don’t get bored, but for me there are few things better than watching beautifully constructed sequences of shots, dependably transferred from the storyboard to the screen, Scottie trailing Madeleine as Herrmann’s melancholic score drifts lazily along, an unsettling undertone to suggest the trap he’s falling into, the luxuriant quality heightening the sense of romance, the cossetted world this pair enter where there’s just each other. The music even keeps on playing when Madeleine drops into the San Francisco Bay, suddenly chaotic as if the score, like Scottie, can’t quite believe what it’s seeing.

A very famous Hitchcock quote goes ‘What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?‘ and I don’t think it was ever more apt than in the case of Vertigo.  Just about every frame contains some visual clue about where the story’s going, showing the sheer level of care and attention that went into the film. Unlike many films that are considered up there with the best, it’s all very accessible and easy enough to follow, even if it takes a few viewings to get everything that’s happening. And best of all, and I can’t emphasise this enough, it’s just so rapturously gorgeous, from its actors to the production values, among the very highest of their time. It’s all so good that you end up wanting these tortured souls to find a morsel of happiness, even though the note of impending doom, the spiral towards destruction that featured on much of Vertigo’s artwork, informs you at every stage that it’s heading in the opposite direction. For little over two hours, Vertigo holds you in a kind of grip, I think a trancelike state, where you’re in something close to a dream, and at the very end real life – with all its troubled history – comes crashing in, as if calling time. But getting there is one of cinema’s greatest joys, and I can’t think of a better recommendation than that.

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Marnie (1964)

When it’s on: Saturday, 8 October (12.30 am, Sunday)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

By no means all Hitchcock films were box office hits, and some at the time found little critical favour also, though retrospective reviews have often discovered the genius their contemporaries failed to identify. Marnie is something of an oddity in that regard – a decent commercial return upon its 1964 release, a largely positive body of comments, a real Marmite movie for today’s viewers. It’s a title I’ve always had trouble getting to grips with. Perhaps that isn’t a surprise – Marnie followed a string of four outright classics, two of which – Vertigo and North by Northwest – remain perhaps the best film I’ve ever seen and the most entertaining respectively, also Psycho and The Birds, both close to masterpiece territory (and if they aren’t, then that’s only because I don’t want to use that word loosely and they certainly fit the bill where many other people are concerned). But on its own merits it isn’t an easy title to take to readily. Marnie runs for 130 minutes and often very little happens in it. The signature moments of suspense are few and far between, though understated and gripping when they occur. And on the surface it seems a simple premise – Tippi Hedren plays the psychologically damaged Marnie, a serial thief ‘rescued’ by Sean Connery’s beneficent and endlessly patient Philadelphia rich kid who seeks to get to the root of her malaise, to essentially save her from herself. It lives or dies depending on how much you engage with Hedren’s performance. Marnie isn’t a very likeable character, but there are reasons for this – how well is all this conveyed? Do you believe in her? Is any of it compelling?

The major criticism of this film is that with a better female lead it might have been more compelling – you imagine it being made in the 1970s starring Faye Dunaway or Meryl Streep and gaining Oscar approval. Hitchcock wanted Grace Kelly for the part, attempting to coax her out of retirement and finding her reaction to be a positive one before the combination of problems within Monaco and Prince Rainier’s unhappiness with his royal wife taking on such a negative role forced her to withdraw. In the meantime, the director’s ‘groomed’ star, Tippi Hedren, had impressed in The Birds to such an extent that he could turn to her as an off the shelf alternative, though by the time Marnie was being shot Hitchcock and his star were barely on speaking terms anymore.

How much of this was down to the lurid stories concerning Hitch’s personal relationship with Hedren is for you to decide. Personally, I never wanted to believe too much of it – the gifts, the affection, the long, long meetings between the pair, the rumours of his ultimately rebuffed sexual advances towards her. I confess this is entirely down to not wanting it to be true, because I love his work and by extension the man himself, though admittedly over time I’ve come to realise there must have been something to all the tales. Hedren was hardly the first lovely lady he attached himself to but perhaps she was the one in whom he felt he’d invested enough time and effort to feel a sense of almost ownership, as though she was his to do with as he pleased. I don’t know. These are just feelings, impressions based on events no one beyond the two people at the centre of it all can claim to know everything about, although Hedren’s own testimonies and the weight of history do suggest a degree of darkness to Hitchcock’s efforts to find the perfect blonde (for his movies).

The other way of looking at it is to imply that by cold shouldering Hedren on set, Hitchcock put her in the perfect place to coax such a performance of alienation and resentment. Because on the viewing for this write-up I was pretty much hooked on her work; far from seeing weak acting that was unable to cope with the demands of the role, I found her entirely convincing and magnetic. It’s a difficult part to play. Not only do you have to buy into her internal psychological damage, she has to make you believe that she’s worth being pursued by Mark Rutland (Connery), that despite her efforts to brush him off, not to mention her sexual frigidity, he persists until the film ends on a cautiously optimistic note. Fortunately, it’s beautifully done, Hedren’s character going through the emotional wringer until at the end her make-up has run, she looks as though she hasn’t slept properly for weeks and she’s reduced to speaking in a little girl’s voice to explain the childhood incident that scarred her for life. The result, Marnie’s repression and attempts to steal and then move on, all fits together so successfully that the use of the red filter as a psychological trigger whenever she sees the colour (no prizes for guessing what that symbolises) is a redundant gimmick.

The film opens with Marnie up to what we must consider to be her old tricks, having taken a position of employment, wormed her way into the boss’s confidence, breaking into and robbing his safe, and moving on to a new city, to the next trick. By a sorry coincidence, the target of her burglary is an associate of Rutland’s, and he’s the very man she ends up working for next. Again, she steals from her employer and does one, only Rutland’s wise to her ways and catches up with her. He then marries her as a pretext to helping her confront the demons that have forced her into this sad existence, a losing game apparently as Marnie is far from ready to give up her secrets.

The other motive behind Rutland’s decision to wed Marnie is his apparent lust for her, depicted in the infamous ‘rape’ scene, a soft take on the act by any modern filmed standards but clearly depicted all the same. This moment appeared in Winston Graham’s source novel and Hitchcock considered it to be uncuttable, despite the protestations of the original screen writer, Evan Hunter, who believed it would rob Rutland of any audience sympathy. The consequence was Hunter’s instant dismissal from the project and the decision to hire Jay Presson Allen, whose script for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was a draft at this stage. Allen appreciated working with Hitchcock, felt that she was never discriminated against for being a woman and believed he was pleased to have a writer who would give the Marnie character a true female perspective, something he was incapable of providing. As for the scene, it remains relatively hard hitting, especially given Rutland’s careful development as a relatively good man, and it’s possible to feel the rape – or at least, the non-consensual act, if you really insist on softening it – jars with the character’s motivations. I think the aim was to add flesh to Rutland, to show that among the good intentions and willingness to help Marnie he’s still a red-blooded male and can only take the lack of sex during his honeymoon so far. In saying that, I’m not trying to excuse his actions, just looking for reasons why he did it.

Rutland was played by Sean Connery, at the time just beginning his run as James Bond with Dr No finding success and a string of annual 007 outings in the pipeline. Looking for a younger version of his proto-masculine hero, Cary Grant, Hitchcock lucked out in getting Connery, who certainly brings all his charisma and presence to the role, albeit one demanding little of the physical performance that would define his time as Bond. While the complete refusal/inability of the actor to adapt his accent to the character was already in place when he made Marnie, Connery’s is undoubtedly good casting, a strong co-star for Hedren and someone in whom you believe entirely to get to the bottom of his wife’s mysteries once he’s resolved to do so. Of the rest of the cast, Diane Baker excels as Lil, Rutland’s sister-in-law who obviously sees herself as a future Mrs Rutland and makes malevolent efforts to undermine Marnie, sort of a less benevolent take on the Midge character in Vertigo. Marnie’s mother is played by Louise Latham, who deglamourised herself to excellent effect as a rather pathetic woman who both loves her daughter and does all she can to push her away, all because of unfortunate past events.

At the time Marnie was released, it was criticised heavily for ‘old Hollywood’ techniques that just looked out place in the 1960s – rear-screen projection and painted backdrops; check out the exterior set used for Marnie’s mother’s house for a glaring example. But was all this done deliberately? After all, it becomes clear that Marnie lives in a made-up world, so does it not follow to suggest her surroundings have a degree of artifice, that to flood her in harsh reality would only serve to highlight the character’s contrivances and diminish the power of her story? I guess it’s up to the individual viewer to decide, but as the film progressed it made more sense to me to think of it in this way.

Far from seeing this as a relatively weak entry within Hitchcock’s body of work, I’ve now come to really appreciate it, and of course there’s the parting of ways it also represented – the final collaboration between the director and Bernard Herrmann; his last with Robert Burks, the long-time cinematographer of Hitch classics. Truly things would never be the same again, and not in a good way given (largely) what followed. I certainly have no hesitation in recommending Marnie. Like Vertigo, it’s quite unlike anything else he made and if nothing better then it’s certainly an absorbing experiment in the subject matter he chose. I imagine those who psycho-analyse Hitchcock’s films for signs of the man’s profile having a field day with this one, which indeed you can do and often with dark and unpalatable results. That’s there if you’re looking for it, but take his extra-curricular motivations away and what you’re left with is a fine and unique film, one that definitely deserves its retrospective.

Marnie: ****

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

When it’s on: Saturday, 1 October (1.00 pm)
Channel: Spike
IMDb Link

At the end of Desmond Davis’s Clash of the Titans, Father of the Greek Gods Zeus makes a prophecy that the exploits depicted in the film and indeed the Gods themselves may one day be forgotten. The speech might also be an end note on this type of movie – by 1981, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation was looking quaint and increasingly artificial, while the tales of ancient mythology covered in these entries were not what audiences were perceived to want any longer. Fantastic cinema was taking to the skies, to other galaxies, with the decade’s later Krull resorting to a blend of both Harryhausen-esque fantasy and science fiction, and the main man’s retirement putting a seal on the genre.

All the same, these films had their golden age, and arguably they were never in better shape than when Harryhausen and Co. came up with Jason and the Argonauts in 1963. Remembered for its sword fighting skeletons, Hydra and of course the mighty Talos, what makes the film so good is that every element was thought about carefully. The casting was inspired; consider the character of Hercules, a role owned at that stage by bodybuilder Steve Reeves who had lent his services to a string of European productions. The easy thing would have been to hand the part to some passing beefcake, but instead they chose Nigel Green, who brought muscle to the role but more importantly a booming personality, lending Hercules a buoyant masculine arrogance that he might not otherwise have possessed. Green’s Hercules is well aware of his own legend – ‘HERCULES IS HERE!‘ – and revels in it, while being good natured enough to have real charisma, and it’s these qualities that make the character so memorable.

Elsewhere, Todd Armstrong’s Jason seems plucked from the shelf of ‘bland leads’, interacting with Harryhausen’s animated characters well enough, and especially in his conversations with it breathing life into the bust of the goddess Hero that provides the ship’s bow. Medea, the story’s heroine, is played by shapely Nancy Kovack and only turns up in the latter half, though in the legends she was a far more prominent character. A string of respected British thespians make up the rest of the cast in this Anglo-American production. The likes of Laurence Naismith, Douglas Wilmer and Gary Raymond help to crew the Argo, the Gods count Niall MacGinniss, Honor Blackman and Michael Gwynn among their ranks, and there are significant supporting roles for the likes of Patrick Troughton and Jack Gwillim. Each lends a touch of class, doing enough to suggest various sub-stories that are worth telling – what exactly did Troughton’s Phineus say to anger the gods to such an extent that he’s plagued by harpies every day, for example?

The film is based on Greek legends that were already ancient in times of antiquity, the story embellished as it was passed down, details added to throw in further challenges for its hero, a saga that in mythology all ended rather unhappily. They loved their tragedies, those Greeks, but here the focus is the golden fleece and its heroic collection. Bits of the tale are grafted on to suit the narrative’s purpose (in the myth, the Argonauts don’t meet Talos until their journey home), chosen to enhance the special effects, which at the time were enjoying their zenith as cinematic spectacle. It was filmed in Italy, mostly around the small town of Palinuro, based south of Naples, with its glorious blue Mediterranean seas and authentic locations, which looked exactly like the pre-Biblical Aegean world it was attempting to recreate. Bernard Herrmann was responsible for the film’s blistering score. Best known for his association with Alfred Hitchcock, Herrmann provided many of the soundtracks for these movies, especially those involving Harryhausen, and suitably evoked the sense of wonder and sometimes menace that fit the tone perfectly.

British director Don Chaffey keeps the action moving at the kind of pace that never reveres the material to the extent that everything slows down, a good thing because its yarn of Gods meddling in the deeds of men, men who come across fantastical beasts as a matter of routine, should be taken as seriously as the description suggests. The point is that there’s so much packed in it feels like a much longer film than its actual running time of comfortably under two hours – lots happens, it always looks great, but everything’s passing at breakneck speed so that viewers are never left to think too deeply about the simple fantasy they’re watching. Of course, Chaffey knew enough to appreciate that the project was a showcase for Harryhausen’s visual effects. By this point a producer as well as doing the legwork, Harryhausen had the good fortune to graft his work onto a film that ticked the boxes in all departments, meaning it never feels like something that’s waiting around for the next stop motion creature to light up the screen, something that becomes more apparent when watching the later The Valley of Gwangi. The effects aren’t gratuitous either. The scene where the Argo has to negotiate a narrow valley called the Clashing Rocks, and is saved from destruction by the intervention of the sea god Triton, is all the better because Harryhausen had the character played by a human actor (an uncredited William Gudgeon), the ship and sea projected in miniature because stop motion animation and water didn’t mix well. The effect works. It’s a memorable and beautifully filmed scene, teasing at the regular meetings of the human and deity spheres that were always prominent in ancient literature.

As for the other effects, well take your pick. The fighting skeleton from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad makes its reappearance, but this time it brings along its mates and the Argonauts have to take on a small army, a deadly corps of corpses as they kill some of Jason’s men and he’s only able to dispatch them by leaping into the sea, knowing if they follow the spell that’s animating them will be broken and they’ll once again be bags of bones. There are the flying harpies that make Phineus’s life an eternal misery, and the Hydra protecting the golden fleece, all obstacles for Jason and his crew to take on, but the show stopper is of course Talos, the enormous bronze statue of the legendary Titan that comes to life when Hercules steals one of the treasures it guards. One of the best things about Harryhausen’s animated characters is the personalities he gave them, perhaps a by-product of the hours and hours he spent bringing them to life, also the fact they were conduits of his own short-lived frustrations as an actor, when he suffered stage fright and instead channelled his performances through the creatures he created. When Talos moves, it’s with the jarring noise of ancient metal joints rubbing together, which becomes a terrifying signal of its approach. Despite its inscrutable mask of a face, it’s difficult not to imagine it being amused at the ant-like warriors attempting to hurt it with spears, its response an almost insulting swing of its sword, like it’s simply swatting them away. When Talos makes a serious attempt to attack the Argonauts, it very nearly halts the entire voyage when it stands, like the Colossus of Rhodes, at the harbour entrance the ship tries to flee through, picking the boat up like a toy and giving it a playful shake. What really makes all this work are the perspective shots, these larger than life heroes suddenly tiny fleeing insects with Talos in pursuit. It’s wonderful stuff, about as good an example of the craft as you’re ever likely to see, the sheer scale and ambition elevating the material to marvellous proportions, Herrmann’s score resorting to a martial drumbeat in reflecting the unstoppable approach of the metal Titan.

The influence of this movie on later film makers can’t really be overstated, the likes of John Landis, Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton all soaking up its delights. Tom Hanks once called it his personal best film of all time. The optimum time to watch it is of course in the early afternoon, the matinee hours, the world doing its own thing outside while you get to immerse yourself in a fantastical story of Gods, monsters and a time of adventure. I envy anyone catching it for the very first time.

Jason and the Argonauts: *****

Getting Hitched!

No, I haven’t died and I’m most definitely still watching movies. The reality is that I took a promotion at work a couple of months ago and as a result I’m putting in much longer hours currently (I’d like to say that my pay rose to reflect the twelve hour days I’m often doing at the moment, but still). Something’s got to give, and at the moment it’s the scouring of TV schedules and putting comments together for these pages that’s losing out. It’s my choice and I don’t regret it, but in all truth I’m generally coming home from the job ready for nothing more than something to eat and some sleep, and FOTB is simply at the back of my mind.

All the same, as a fun side project and ‘to keep my hand in’, as it were, I’m working steadily on another ‘Best to Worst’ article for the site, this time on the directorial adventures of Alfred Hitchcock. I would argue that over the years of film viewing Hitch has become my favourite auteur of them all and so it’s quite a pleasure to plough through his extensive back catalogue. I own copies of just about every film of his that’s available (on DVD; there will come a time when I update the lot to HD format but that sounds like an exhausting assignment), and at the time of writing I’m up to the late 1930s, a very rich period for Alfred and featuring some brilliant movies. Similarly, to help I’m referring often to several books about him, including the terrific The Art of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto, and Charles Barr’s English Hitchcock. Both volumes contain extensive critiques of his films, often going into exhaustive detail about pictures where I’m confining myself to around 500 words apiece.

Despite the risk of nullifying my poor family into endless boredom with Hitchaphenalia, I’m enjoying this project immensely. Clearly, producing an actual ranking is going to be very difficult. Even the great man’s duds aren’t poor works by most people’s standards. Generally derided entries, like Number Seventeen and Waltzes from Vienna, have something to recommend them, whether it’s the former’s crazy chase scene (featuring some lovely model work), or the bravura debut performance of Blue Danube by Strauss Jr. Neither film is going to come close to troubling the higher spots, and God knows how I’m going to work that out (personal preference is as good a guide as any ultimately), but we’re talking about some very serious talent here. Luckily it’s a nice dilemma to have to deal with.

As I write this I’m listening to a Bernard Herrmann playlist on Apple Music. Herrmann isn’t even close to entering Hitchcock’s orbit on my viewing schedule yet, however the number of documentaries about him that I’ve seen recently are all daubed liberally with the great composer’s scores, and let’s face it there’s no chore in hearing his music, is there? Despite his close association to Hitchcock, I confess the main joys right now are coming from his soundtracks for Ray Harryhausen movies. If there’s a better fun work than that he did for The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, then I’m yet to hear it.

In the meantime, it’s always worth checking out the poll of Hitchcock’s movies that Sergio compiled over at Tipping my Fedora. I don’t agree with the entire top ten produced by this public vote, yet that just shows the sheer variety and richness on offer. Not a sign, in the upper echelons, of entries like I Confess and Rebecca, both of which I love, nor Dial M for Murder, Frenzy, Sabotage, Young and Innocent or Foreign Correspondent… Similarly, the trilogy of lengthy podcasts done by The Secret History of Hollywood covering Hitchcock’s life and work can’t be recommended highly enough.

Again, please forgive the hiatus taking place on these pages. And with that, I’m off to watch The Lady Vanishes

The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941)

When it’s on: Saturday, 31 October (3.45 pm)
Channel: Talking Pictures TV
IMDb Link

As with the other titles I’ve picked this week, The Devil and Daniel Webster doesn’t fit easily into the horror genre, but it’s such a good film that I couldn’t resist including it. It’s a Faustian tale of diabolical temptation, earthly desires against doing the right thing, and it really deserves to be up there with the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life as the kind of classic morality fable that has transcended the era in which it was made to be loved and watched to this day. It’s also very good fun, slyly subversive, and has the canniness to features heroes with character flaws that of course only serves to make them far more interesting.

I can’t pretend to know a great deal about the real Daniel Webster, a prominent Massachusetts Senator and lawyer from the first half of the nineteenth century. From his Wikipedia page, the impression I get is of a conservative and elitist figure, far from a man of the people, and someone who resisted upsetting the southern States, which were sliding into Civil War, and that meant compromising on the critical issue of abolishing slavery. Quite a different man, therefore, from the figure presented in the film, one based wholly on the 1937 short story by Stephen Vincent Benet that provided the source for its cinematic adaptation. Benet researched Webster extensively and came across someone whose heart and soul remained in his native New England, essentially one of its great and treasured sons, providing fine material for the sort of great American folk hero who would chance his arm at taking on the Devil himself.

And in the story that’s just what happens. The Devil appears as a smooth operator, appearing to desperate people and offering them a deal to make them prosperous, helping all their wildest dreams come true, all at the piffling price of their souls. Critically the Devil, Mr Scratch, exhorts himself as a fellow American, really the first American, appealing to peoples’ hopes of getting rich and capturing the great American dream for themselves. In other words, he’s one side of a coin; the other, the Webster from the story, is all about fellowship and homegrown values. Natural opponents.

The object of their contest is Jabez Stone, who in the film is played by James Craig. A poor farmer, Stone is in debt to Mister Stevens (John Qualen), to whom he struggles in keeping up his mortgage payments. Living with his Ma (Jane Darwell) and wife, Mary (Anne Shirley), he tries to maintain a moral, upstanding existence, one in which church services and the Sabbath are observed, but against those is his desperation. Things go wrong. A pig he was going to give to Stevens in lieu of money breaks a leg. The crops look like they may fail, and in sheer frustration he declares to himself that he’d sell his soul for two cents. Enter Mr Scratch (Walter Huston), pictured above. In exchange for a pot of Hessian gold coins and seven years of good fortune, Stone agrees to forfeit his soul, and sure enough things start looking up. He pays off his mortgage. A hail storm destroys all the other farmers’ crops, but not his, and pretty soon he has employed everyone to work for him. Before the seven year contract has lapsed, he’s built a mansion and transformed into the sort of oligarch that Stevens could only dream of becoming. But time is ticking. Mr Scratch is willing to agree an extension, but only in exchange for the soul of his son, Daniel, at which point Stone runs to Webster (Edward Arnold) and begs for his help. This sets up the climactic courtroom battle between the legendary lawyer (‘I’d fight ten thousand Devils to save a New Hampshire man‘) and Mr Scratch, presided over by a judge and jury made up of damned Americans.

The Devil and Daniel Webster was directed by William Dieterle, a graduate of the German film industry who brought a welter of experience in the expressionist style. Given more or less carte blanche over the project, in much the same way as fellow RKO contractor Orson Welles was with Citizen Kane, Dieterle turned in a dreamlike piece of work, something along the lines of a dark folk tale. It’s stuffed with disturbing imagery, unorthodox shooting angles, peerless use of lighting and shadows. The film depicts Webster writing a bill in favour of the farmers, whilst in silhouette Mr Scratch whispers to him, explaining that if he uses it he’ll never become President. The Devil first appears to Jabez from a pool of ethereal, unnatural light, the soundtrack punctuated with a strange and high pitched otherworldly sound and the noises of animals in discomfort. As Jabez begins his slide into greedy immorality, he’s covered increasingly in shadows, echoing the darkness consuming his being. It’s no accident either that Jabez’s wife is portrayed in similar tones to Janet Gaynor’s character in Sunrise, nor that the two actresses look alike. Mary represents the good, Christian rural values; when Simone Simon’s Devil-sent temptress turns up, she’s not dissimilar to that film’s Woman from the City, corrupting Jabez with her wiles.

Like Mr Scratch, Belle (Simon) first appears in a pool of light, this time from the Stone’s fire. Though she turns up unannounced, to replace the family nurse who’s looking after Mary and her baby, it’s clear from her sensuousness and flirting with Jabez that she’s there for much more. It’s a great performance, sweet and unsettling at the same time, as she works steadily to undermine Mary’s influence over her husband and their child, Daniel, and is clearly sleeping with Jabez. Her French accent works also, adding layers of mystery and allure to her character. When she’s asked where she’s from, she replies ‘over the mountains‘, and who’s going to argue with that?

Arnold’s good also, employed as a replacement for the original choice of Thomas Mitchell, who had to withdraw when he was thrown from a carriage during filming and fractured his skull. His scenes were refilmed, which was done at great expense as much of it was already in the can. Best known perhaps as a corrupt politician in Mr Smith Goes to Washington, here Arnold is a much kindlier figure, very much a hero to the people and depicted working the fields with his own employees rather than ordering them around. But he isn’t perfect, shown enjoying his rum a little too much, even when he’s preparing to face Mr Scratch in a legal battle for Jabez’s soul.

But of course, the film is owned by Huston’s Mr Scratch, which is just how it should be. I’ve read elsewhere that many people think his is the best portrayal of the Devil ever committed to celluloid, and I’m happy to go with that opinion. In a role that demands scenery chewing joy, Huston is a sheer delight, softly spoken, charismatic and persuasive, nearly always shown with a smile on his face. There’s menace also; when Miser Stevens, who entered into an infernal deal of his own, reaches the end of his contract, Mr Scratch captures his soul, which is now trapped within a moth and goes into his pocket, his for all time. He’s such a winning character that he rightly gets the last laugh, even after his climactic legal battle against Daniel Webster. Shown chewing on the peach pie he’s stolen from Ma, he then gets up and looks around for his next victim, settling inevitably on breaking the fourth wall when he stares out of the screen, straight at the viewer, indicating that we’re next!

The Devil and Daniel Webster works hard to depict the Stone farm as an earthly paradise – even during hard times it looks like the countryside, pastoral idyll of a Constable painting – those similarities to Murnau’s Sunrise again. The meaning should be easy enough to work out. The New Hampshire in which Jabez toils and struggles is in fact the real American dream, the ideals set out by the founding fathers, honest and comradely, whereas the deal offered by Mr Scratch is the avaricious but no less salacious temptation of Capitalism, the other tower on which the country was built. It’s all beautifully worked, its points aided by the Oscar winning score composed by Bernard Herrmann. Every emotion is emphasised by the multi-layered musical accompaniment, never better than when the Devil is playing Pop Goes the Weasel on his fiddle during a barnyard dance, achieving impossible speeds on his violin as the intoxicating prospect of Jabez following Belle around the floor reaches its crescendo.

The film was initially released in America as All that Money Can Buy to avoid similarities with The Devil and Miss Jones, also to calm RKO’s worries that audiences would turn away from a period piece about a historical figure. Their concerns were well founded. Like the studio’s other big release from 1941, Citizen Kane, it was a loser at the box office and prompted savage cuts to its running time for its reissue in 1952. Only a discovery of the full edit that had been retained by Dieterle himself allows us to enjoy the film as it was intended, and I think ‘enjoy’ is the right word. It’s an important work, not to mention wildly entertaining and featuring at least one Oscar-worthy performance (Huston was nominated). I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Devil and Daniel Webster: *****

The Trouble with Harry (1955)

When it’s on: Saturday, 23 May (2.35 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

The Trouble with Harry started out as a novel by British author, Jack Trevor Story, was adapted for the stage, and later Alfred Hitchcock bought the screen rights for $11,000. Upon its release, it was deemed to be a flop, yet its subsequent success in European cinemas enhanced its reputation, and the film probably made its money back after another round of American screenings. Perhaps surprisingly, it was to be one of the director’s personal favourites. When asked in 1974 about his body of work, The Trouble with Harry was one of four movies Hitchcock claimed he wanted to have staying power with audiences (The 39 Steps, Shadow of a Doubt and North by Northwest, since you’re wondering), and perhaps it isn’t that difficult to see why. Whilst Psycho and Vertigo are acknowledged masterpieces, they’re both dark pieces of work that explore the grim recesses of the human soul. Our Harry, on the other hand, is never less than fun, and I suspect Hitch hoped the movie would reflect his own sense of humour.

Certainly, The Trouble with Harry is a good laugh. It’s simple yarn, which is based on the discovery of a dead body laid among the autumnal trees of a Vermont fall, turns into high farce as the story progresses. Hitchcock proved he could find wit amidst the usually morbid subject of somebody’s death. And as usual, the plot, which follows the fortunes of four characters who are in different ways linked to Harry, produces so much more from its focal point. Throw in a sublime and playful Bernard Herrmann score (the composer’s first collaboration with Hitch), some great performances, and a tone that sustains a light, breezy atmosphere, and you end up with a film that might not be a Hitchcock classic, but by most people’s standards is well worth a second look.

Harry, the movie’s central character has no lines, doesn’t move of his own accord, and we see little of him beyond his feet, which are wrapped in blue socks with gaudy red toes. That’s because Harry’s dead. Lying flat on his back in the woods, a hole in his head that might have been made by a bullet or a shoe heel, Harry’s unfortunate corpse comes into contact with a number of the local town’s denizens and very nearly gets several of them into peril.

The film opens with a shot and raised voices, shortly before a small boy discovers the body. Herrmann’s typically ominous score suggests only one thing – murder most foul. Elsewhere amidst the trees is Captain Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn). Out to shoot rabbits, but showing no success for his efforts, the softly spoken gentleman blames himself for Harry’s death. He must have shot him by accident, Wiles argues to himself, and so he sets about preparing to bury the evidence. Whilst doing so, he comes across Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick), who shows next to no concern about finding someone hauling a dead body along by the feet (‘What seems to be the trouble, Captain?‘) and instead invites him over for blueberry muffins and coffee, perhaps even some elderberry wine. Harry’s wife, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine), also finds the corpse. In another movie, her lack of remorse over his death would be at least callous, and certainly chilling. Here, it’s farcical. Local artist, Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe) gets roped into the Captain’s plan to dig a grave for Harry, that is when he isn’t dreaming about the lovely Jennifer, and the possibility of selling a painting or two.

Ultimately, Harry winds up as a bit of a plot device, albeit a troublesome one as his very presence becomes a burden for those who would be rid of him. What the film’s really about is the web of relationships that develops between the other characters, all of whom have been drawn together by him. Sam fancies Harry’s widow, and his attempts to woo her form a major plot strand. More charming by far, however, is the faulting courtship between Wiles and Ivy. Neither is very confident – the Captain frets about not making a fool of himself, whilst Ms Gravely gingerly buys a special cup and submits to a haircut, all to prepare for her blueberry muffins date. As the quartet move closer together, they find more and more labyrinthine ways to dispose of Harry. His poor corpse is buried and dug up several times as the characters look for reasons to shake him off quietly or let the authorities come across his body.

Much has been made of the fact that this is Shirley MacLaine’s big screen debut. The movie was unavailable for public screenings for nearly thirty years when Hitchcock bought back its rights and left it in legacy to his daughter. By the time it was re-released in 1984, MacLaine had become Hollywood royalty, fresh from her Oscar winning turn in Terms of Endearment, and fans got to see a much younger and prettier model in this lost vintage. In the winning role of Jennifer, she’s all charm, heartbreakingly pretty and the very epitome of a 1950s modern girl. It’s impossible not to see what would have attracted Marlowe to her.

Yet hers isn’t the lasting performance. This honour goes jointly to Gwenn and Natwick. Their characters are twee and lovable without ever becoming mawksome. The former, an Oscar winner himself (he was Kris Kringle in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street) is a delight, his soft English accent – retaining its trace of his London roots – giving him the harmless exterior that turns out to be just as true on the inside as he wraps himself up in doubt over what to do about both Harry and the lovely Ms Gravely. Natwick is similarly superb and wonderfully funny as the highly strung Ivy, who also believes she has something to do with Harry’s demise when not getting herself worked up over the Captain. Theirs is a charming middle-aged relationship, and you’d put money on their connection lasting much longer than that between Jennifer and Sam, such is the chemistry between them.

Perhaps the weakest link is Forsythe, who ought to have the plum role as our likeable young hero who gets the girl, but who never seems entirely at ease with it. He’s easy enough on the eyes and doesn’t put too much of a foot wrong. But he just isn’t quite as memorable as his peers, and it’s unlikely you’d watch the film again on his account alone.

Forsythe’s slightly uneven presence aside, there’s little about The Trouble with Harry that’s open to criticism. Hitch was enjoying his own golden age whilst making the movie, and it’s clear that this is a very polished piece of work. All the same, it can’t help but fade when compared with the director’s recognised greats of the 1950s. Partly this has to be down to its tone. The film is frothy and light. It’s almost as though Hitchcock made it to shed some of the heavy-going material he was working with at the time, such is its leisurely pace and characters who appear to have few skeletons lurking in their closets (though at one point in the movie, that’s more or less exactly what they’ve got). Some of the film’s scenes take place during the night, yet overall this is a piece made for daylight, a glorious fleshy autumn filled with dying leaves, blue skies, and the local doctor tripping over the corpse during his constitutional, only to obliviously pick himself up and move along. The town is filled with nice people. Even Royal Dano’s doubting deputy sheriff comes straight out of Bedford Falls; it’s a place where nothing bad really happens and even terrible catastrophes can be resolved.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. The Trouble with Harry marks a delightful change of pace, a nice, funny piece of work that has real heart within it. If it isn’t perfect, then that’s because Hitchcock was fated to be better when handling darker material, the pinnacle of which was still to come. As a lighthearted ninety five minutes of entertainment, however, it takes some licking. Many have tried, and very few have succeeded in exceeding its easy charm and good-natured wit, and you end up wondering just how much of himself the master put into it.

My favourite bit? Undoubtedly the scene where the captain is walking into town and spies a police car in the road. Carrying his rifle, the firearm he believes killed Harry, he tries to hide it inside his jacket, before opting to hold it against his leg and affect a limp to shield it as he strolls past the cops. Gwenn carries the moment splendidly, a bag of nerves trying to manage a blithe greeting while all around him, Herrmann’s flutes maintain a slightly mocking lilt.

The Trouble with Harry: ****

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

When it’s on: Friday, 27 April 2012 (3.10 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

There are days, reader(s), when I wish someone would put me out of my misery and let me stay at home with a Film4 line-up of afternoon matinee classics. This site would have a lot less to talk about without Channel 4’s movie service and the kind of schedule that slips The Day the Earth Stood Still betwixt The Sea Chase and A Matter of Life and Death. Bliss.

This is the original version, made more than sixty years ago as a Cold War allegory and sparking a decade of science fiction flicks riffing off the paranoia of 1950s America. Forget the worthless 2008 update. Robert Wise’s tale of the benevolent alien appearing to us with a warning might look primitive, both in terms of its effects and its portrayal of American life and values, but it’s pure storytelling. And not just the over-arching plot, rather the canny way it probes gently into all its characters’ lives, whether this comes via a conversation or even a well-judged shot of someone’s reaction. Its magic lies in the lovely, warm and honest relationship between Klaatu (Yorkshire-born actor, Michael Rennie) and Bobby (Billy Gray), the way the child’s open questions and sense of wonder affects his friend from another world. Or the acceptance of Klaatu’s wisdom from Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe), not to mention the very human responses of Helen (Patricia Neal) to his revelations and the stripping away of his identity.

Wise said that he wanted his film to appear believable, leading to all those reaction  shots of ordinary people, the logical curiosity and suspicion surrounding Klaatu’s flying saucer and the sentinel, Gort, in reality 7’7″ Lock Martin lumbering along in a claustrophobic robot suit. The contemporary feeling of suspicion that inspired the film was called up by composer Bernard Herrman, taking his first job since moving to Hollywood and deploying two theremins to create that famous, otherworldly atmosphere.

Watched now, there are elements of The Day the Earth Stood Still that seem quaint. The science underpinning it is incredibly limited. Klaatu is conveniently identical to human beings (this was a point the 2008 film addressed). His powers of recovery were toned down in the script so audiences wouldn’t be upset with the idea that anyone but God could be omnipotent and immortal. But these are mere quibbles and far from reason enough to avoid watching it. First time viewers are in for a real treat from science fiction’s golden age. Those who’ve seen it before – perhaps, like me, on some midweek, early evening BBC2 schedule, which used to be the optimum time to screen old monster movies – will find its worth to be absolutely intact.

And remember – Klaatu barada nikto.

The Day the Earth Stood Still: *****