Tag Archives: film

The Quintessential Hitchcock Film

 

So chic

Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint

North By Northwest was filmed in 1959 but has a familiar, thematic ring unmistakably reminiscent of The 39 Steps, made twenty-four years earlier. First, North By Northwest is about buildings and architecture. By this time, Hitchcock was fascinated with them: their beamed foundations; cross-hatched construction; shining, lofty glass windows and artistic integrity. He utilizes some of the most famous buildings in New York City as well as the statuesque faces of Mount Rushmore and a phenomenal Frank Lloyd Wright house.

After buildings and trains, the movie is about advertising executive, Roger Thornhill, played by Cary Grant. He plays the archetypal ad guy: slick, the gray suit, polished, handsome, smart wry-humor, confident, plenty of cash on hand. The movie begins as did The 39 Steps, and many other Hitchcock thrillers, when our hero’s life is flowing at its usual every day pace but is suddenly interrupted by chaos. Roger Thornhill is rushing off the elevator of an imposing, downtown building delegating orders to his secretary, who must follow him out to the street taking notes. With the way these street scenes are filmed, there is the sensation of all movement taking place on conveyor belts.

Thornhill’s life is so robust and his calendar so full of client-meetings that his secretary must ride with him in a cab in order to scribble it all down as he dictates. Cary Grant hops from elevators to sidewalk curbs to the glistening marble halls of the Ambassador Hotel like a sleek gazelle and then glides into the bar for a martini with his somewhat dazzled clients. Then, by a sheer case of mistaken identity, two glorified thugs whisk Thornhill off to the sprawling, remote neighborhood of a country mansion.

The lurking captors, like pompous vultures, make homicidal threats. And just as Hanay in The 39 Steps, the innocent Thornhill has been spirited away into the underworld of espionage and murder. Thornhill’s captors, for all of their snobbish arrogance, (James Mason Plays an exceedingly articulate Phillip Vandamm), seem rather dim-witted at figuring out a way to keep their hostage subdued. They force a bottle of brandy down his throat to render him useless; but, they underestimate Thornhill’s threshold for liquor. He is definitely smashed – lolling his head around and singing out of key, but he is an advertising guy, and ad guys can drink! Soon Thornhill manages to thwart his captors, but now, like Hanay, he must solve his own case. He enlists his mother for a while. A well-heeled, attractive, middle-aged bridge-player played by Jessie Royce Landis, (who was really too young to actually be his mother); she is the essence of sarcasm and incredulity: being an experienced woman, she does not trust her son, but she keeps him amused.

Then there is the beautiful blond on the train, just as in The 39 Steps, but this blond, played by Eva Marie Saint, appears to be much more helpful! She is mostly well equipped for some very steamy scenes, 1950’s style, in the train compartment, as well as conducting our Thornhill onto a Greyhound bus and out to the flat, Midwestern boonies, where, at a crossroads, Thornhill stands alone and waits for the famous airplane, chase-scenes. The dry, brown American landscape is nothing like the Scottish highlands: and this alone seems to render his plight more harsh. Hitchcock somehow understood the good and the bad of our country: revering 20th century progress and the great, gleaming architecture of downtown Manhattan and the gifted architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright; yet, while at the same time, pointing out the prosaic and the petty-mindedness that is stitched into the fabric of our relatively young culture.

The director was also acutely aware of the strict controls that society wants to place on us, and of the ordinary citizens who will eagerly volunteer for the cause of entrapping an innocent man, as in Thornhill’s Grand Central Station getaway, where police guards stand peering through the crowds for the killer, and a ticket taker who keeps a photograph of Thornhill near the bars of his station ready to be the one to identify him. Or when Thornhill pops up once again to meet his killers at a silent auction and the well-dressed elite turn up their noses, one woman archly calling him “an idiot”, and an auction attendant who, with pursed lips, quietly phones the police.

The film’s pace is magnified throughout by the fantastic, sonorous base and viola symphony music of Bernard Herman. The music is on the same grand scale as the architecture, including the Wright house in which high-angle, camera shots bring the suave Grant down through the stylish, textured surfaces to yet another escape.

Hitchcock had a keen sensibility for the spy and counter-spy machinations of the cold war era. He puts particular emphasis upon the role of Washington in those high-stakes international, political games. And with a clean swipe, the director suggests that the White House and “the U.S. Intelligence Agency” are covertly involved in all of this. Yet, the faces of the presidents in the Mount Rushmore Monument seem to look worried, austere as well as enthralled at what is going on after their time.

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An English Comedy by John Schlesinger

Billy hamming it up.

Go back a couple of generations, to an era that has become legend to the technological age, and you will find the actor Tom Courtenay as Billy Fisher sitting at table with Mum and Dad, plus Grandma, enduring with good humor his family’s brooding disapproval. It is 1963, and at this typical Yorkshire, England kitchen table with frilly curtains, porcelain tea-pots, sugar bowls and all, sits a not so typical young man.

He tells lies with uncommon repose and has these indulgent fantasies of heroic grandeur; still, he seems most likely of all the young men in this small, Yorkshire town of Bradford, to one day escape its fishbowl mentality. Billy has the instinctive ability to shrug off the glowering looks aimed at him from the older generation, as well as from the many fiances he has acquired, with extraordinarily self-mollifying humor – at its best when his speech verges on a rather elegant brogue

The movie, Billy Liar, is early-John Schlesinger, with foretellings of the genius that became the Academy Award winning fame of Darling, (1965), and Midnight Cowboy, (1969). While Billy Fisher throws actual calendar pages at the wind, to Joe Buck’s symbolic ones, each of these 20th century heroes wants to escape the confines of his prosaic home-town for a more exciting and self-fulfilling life in the big city.

A lighter movie than Midnight Cowboy, Billy Fisher, like Joe Buck, struggles within two realms: that of life’s reality and the illusory world of dreams and fantasies. Billy Fisher wants to become a scriptwriter for a questionably famous comedian in London, and, not surprisingly, the would-be writer is funnier than the comic. Some of Billy’s most humorous material is practiced on his boss, Mr. Shadrack, who runs an undertaker firm. A hawkish, stolid man, played by the venerable Leonard Rossiter, he finds no humor in Billy whatsoever.

Liz and Billy above the dance hall.

Julie Christie, however, plays Liz, the beautiful, mercurial girl who drifts back and forth between London and Bradford – she won’t be tied down. Yet, she has an inkling for Billy; indeed, it becomes obvious they are kindred souls.

Why does Billy lie? Julie Christie is asked in the film commentary, and she sums it up well by pointing out that Billy was intensely creative, but “not a second of time was given” to him by anyone in his family, nor by his boss, who, like everyone else, mockingly waves-off Billy’s ambitions to be a scriptwriter. Moreover, Billy’s father is a real brute; and his mother, though she loves her son, takes no interest in what Billy is really all about. “So it is no wonder he lies about himself all the time,” Christie says.

Billy lives in a fantasy-world, to which only the audience is privy. He has all sorts fantastic, inner-imaginings – of soldiering, marching and shooting, which is such the vernacular, survivalist culture of England. He is always the wounded but celebrated hero of the war – marching through the dilapidated streets on the winning side; though, it is a little unclear whether he fancies himself on the English side, the German side or what-have-you. And Billy’s underlying anger manifests itself in these flash-fantasies of shooting people or blowing them up, namely his father, his boss, or his fiance – the bitchy one, whenever they go against him.

Billy and best friend, Arthur.

Tom Courtenay had been playing the understudy for Albert Finney in the stage version of this story, which was based on a novel by Keith Waterhouse. John Schlesinger chose Courtenay, as well as Billy’s mother and father and grandmother from the stage cast. Leonard Rossiter, Mr. Shadrack, was a well-established T.V. actor, but a number of the other characters were inexperienced, which was the way Schlesinger wanted it. He liked the germane, northern England quality they brought to the film.

As for Julie Christie: she was discovered by the Italian producer, Joseph Janni, acting in a dramatic production, at a time when she was studying language and drama in London. This was Christie’s first part in a film, and she has mentioned, somewhat wistful, that it was the best role she has ever played. This, even though her very next part, also with Schlesinger, in Darling, earned her an Academy Award for best actress!

Schlesinger’s great genius as a filmmaker becomes corporeal with Christie’s role as Liz, the girl who is spiritually characteristic of Billy – without the lies. She breezes into Bradford on the black and white, chiaroscuro light of Schlesinger’s film-art. The towering, ancient buildings of northern England that he renders as flying above like beautiful, gothic birds alongside the new buildings going up during England’s post-WWII industrial urbanization, define Schlesinger’s initial documentary style. Christie dances through the streets like a Londoner, to this snappy, piping flute-music accompanied by somber, jazzy, bass undertones which signifies the era at the inception of its time.

 

Billy grasping his calendars of good-will.

Billy grasping his calendars of good will.

 

 

The Lady Vanishes on The Night Train to Darjeeling Limited Mashup


Over the weekend I watched Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” plus “Night Train To Munich,” and both these classic movies seemed to lead to Wes Anderson’s “Darjeeling Limited”. Finding similarities was as fun as trying to spot Alfred Hitchcock’s cameos in his own films, as indeed there is near the end of “The Lady Vanishes”.

Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson are certainly Hitchcock fans and classic movie fans. Aside from the universal traveling-by-train theme, I was constantly delighted with a treasure trove of parallel vignettes. The beginning scenes in both “The Lady Vanishes” and “Darjeeling Limited” for example, take place in hotel rooms: Hitchcock’s zany, old world hotel scenes are a picturesque inkling to Anderson’s film-short, The Hotel Chevalier, the introduction to the main story of “Darjeeling Limited”: a man and woman ending up in the same room and the same bed. Of course, Anderson’s version is much more steamy and therefore quite a bit more exciting; although, Hitchcock’s classic mystery and suspense build up to plenty of thrills, once they’re all on the train,

Margaret Lockwood does resemble Natalie Portman, a bit, who plays Jason Schwartzman’s wild girlfriend in “Darjeelling Limited,” but Lockwood is distinctly British. She plays an alluring role in both of the older films. Lockwood was the quintessential, lovely, English brunette with soulful, penetrating eyes; a hidden weakness for romance and a biting wit. In “Night Train to Munich,” her leading man is Rex Harrison, a dashing and cheeky British Spy. I honestly did not realize that Rex Harrison was ever that young or handsome. The only other film in which I’ve ever seen him was “My Fair Lady,” where he is much older and rather curmudgeonly. But he has the same delightful, British cadences, which crackle like a schoolboy whose voice is changing.

I have yet to see Wes Anderson’s “Grand Budapest Hotel,” but I suspect this latest Anderson creation was also partly inspired by these two older films, with their snowy, foreign vistas and featured train motifs. Also, Anderson often presents us with his fondest actors and actresses time and again. As well, in these two older films, some of the same characters pop up, specifically the two British chaps, Charters and Caldicott. In “Night Train to Munich,” these two exceedingly English gents banter back and forth calling each other “old boy” as they travel together with an indifferent eye toward anything except cricket. They only want to get back to London and not be drawn into anything complicated, until… the Nazis start getting pushy.

The essential difference I see in these films lies in their thematic backdrop. Wes Anderson replaces the old World War tropes with his own signature touch, which is to say with his unique, loving portrayal of the story and its characters. Anderson does away with warfare hostilities and deals mainly in personal relationships, usually within a domestic, suburban setting, at least up to “The Darjeeling Limited,” where he begins to cross borders into ever more exotic lands but retains the essential feeling for the fragility in relationships while tenderly, and humorously, exposing the family dynamic.

The Darjeeling Limited

Night Train To Munich, cover illustration