Tag Archives: David Thomson

On the Delights of Minor Hitchcock 1 – Torn Curtain

Torn Curtain is widely thought to rank amongst the worst of Hitchcock, a failed emulation of the Bond films so popular in the era, and remembered by Hitchcock afficionados mainly for the rupture in the relationship between Hitchcock and composer Bernard Herrman: Herrman wrote a score for the film but Hitchcock didn’t like it and commissioned a new, pop-ier one from John Addison. It was the last time they worked together.

David Thomson in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film writes, ‘No matter how many times the profit ratio of Psycho is repeated, it does not alter the fact that Hitchcock made several flops, several films in which the entire narrative structure — over which he spent such time and care — is grotesquely miscalculated. Stage Fright, The Trouble with Harry, Lifeboat, and Torn Curtain seem to me thumpingly bad films, helpless in the face of intransigent plots, true delicacy of humour and uncooperative players (p.401).’ It’s all relative I suppose but I don’t agree; or rather, Hitchcock’s worst offers more pleasures than almost anybody else’s best. I found a lot to like in Torn Curtain.

The story is an espionage thriller about a Professor (Paul Newman) and his assistant/fiancée (Julie Andrews), three months from tying the knot, who are at a scientific conference in Scandinavia when, much to the fiancée’s astonishment, the Professor decides to defect to East Berlin. Is he a traitor or is he a spy? We soon find out.  The film boasts memorable and typically Hitchcockian set-pieces: the killing in the country-side farm, Paul Newman being followed in a museum, the couple escaping the university, the way they outmanoeuvre the Stasi and manage to escape from the ballet when every entrance is blocked by police, etc. Really, even minor Hitchcock is full of pleasures. Of Hollywood filmmakers, only Lubitsch is Hitchcock’s equal in engaging with the audience, making us complicit in what’s going, trusting us to be co-creators of aspects of the story being told and teasing, tricking, playing with us in order to please and delight.

Stars:

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Fig A

The performances of the stars of Torn Curtain have been widely criticised, Thomson calling them ‘drab’ (p.402). Others regurgitating stories of how Hitchcock had wanted Eva Maria Saint and Cary Grant; how Paul Newman and Julie Andrews, the top box-office stars of this period, were imposed on Hitchcock by the studio; how Newman was — to Hitchock’s annoyance — too method; how he found Julie Andrews  not beautiful or sexy enough.

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Fig. B

Be that as it may, there’s no question that he took great care with the presentation of these stars. We’re introduced to them in bed, with their coats over the blankets, making love and trying to keep warm. Then, we see their name tags of the characters they play in alternating close-ups, first Dr. Sarah Sherman and then Professor Michael Armstrong. We first see the backs of their heads, then extreme close-ups of the couple kissing. We know they’ve just had sex: ‘let’s call this lunch,’ says Armstrong. It’s a sexy spin on Julie Andrews’ star persona. Here is Mary Poppins and the novice from The Sound of Music in bed with Paul Newman; and they’re not even married! That must have been a thrilling star entrance to fans of both stars. Moreover, Hitchcock and his team light them beautifully. Look at the shine of the pin spot in Andrew’s eyes in fig. A. How Newman’s eyes, then widely publicised  as the most beautiful blues in the world, are presented in an enormous close-up, so big as to encompass only one eye, made to shine against the light (fig. B). Note too, the prominent display of Newman’s body throughout the film (fig. C).

Paul Newman
Fig. C

‘Performance’ is not everything in commercial filmmaking, particularly when it’s a question of stars. Newman and Andrews are not bad; the director makes an interesting play on audience expectations, giving them a theatrical star entrance, lighting them gorgeously, dressing them both attractively and meaningfully, and playing on and developing their star personas, particularly that of Andrews. I loved seeing them in this, and stars by their very nature should not need to play a ‘role of a lifetime’ to bring their audience pleasure; often their presence is enough for their fans. When presented as carefully and to so much advantage as here, it is much more than enough. Newman and Andrews were a draw then and are still reasons to see this film.

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The point-of-view of Sarah, and the film at this moment, on Michael. He’s naked, enticing, but not clearly visible; rendered alluring but mysterious. Another example of Hitchcock showing stars as attractions but in such a way that it is meaningfully expressive of the drama in the film at the moment as well as overall and in relation to its broader themes.

Performance:

hands-in-Torn-Curtain

It is true that the stars, delightful as they are to see, do not give memorable performances. But I do think it would be fair to say that some of the performances in Torn Curtain have become legendary. Wolfgang Kieling as Hermann Gromek, Armstrong’s East German body-guard, with his East-European accent and his American slang, funny and menacing, always watchable, is an outsize cartoon. It’s a particular type of performance, very theatrical, very knowing, aimed at the audience, and clearly a type Hitchcock delights in.

I’ve made a gif of his famous death scene so as to exaggerate his hand gestures (see above). This is an actor who knows how to make the most of a scene even in the absence of his face or even most of his body, who steals the scene from his co-stars by showing us his expiration only with a wave of his fingers, but they wave and wave, each movement expressing something slightly different but within an overall arc, like those hams who can turn being shot into a five minute dance with death. I find it delightful, so much better than merely ‘realistic’ and Hitchcock must have also, or he would have shot it differently, shortened it or cut it altogether.

Much as I love Kieling’s performance, one never gets a sense that he’s playing a real person. This is not true of Lila Kedrova’s marvellous turn as the Countess Kuchinska, the Polish Countess, not ‘communistical’, sneering at the quality of the tobacco and the coffee and desperate for American sponsorship of her visa application. As you can see below, each of her ‘faces’ is beautifully expressive, and she does run the gamut of expression.

I tried to do some image capture to illustrate and the enormous range of vivid expressions she brought even within one shot quickly became evident. No single still would do, so I created a compilation from her scenes in the cafe with Julie Andrews and Paul Newman. Kedrova’s performance is theatrical, almost Delsartean in her gestures, and she looks like a wounded French bulldog, but one gets a sense of a person who’s elegant, pained, powerful but helpless, bewildered. There’s a person that’s constructed out of those arresting expression and those wounded eyes. How did the countess arrive from Poland to East Berlin? What did she have to live through? It’s clear that she was once beautiful and that maybe she could no longer use that to the advantage she once did. What did her class, her gender, her beauty and her foreignness play in her survival? What sort of desperation drives an already old person to go to such lengths to get out?

 

I love the last shot in the clip above. The countess has finally gotten the American couple the information they needed. But just as they succeed the police arrives. She trips the policeman to allow the couple to escape, knowing that doing so seals her own doom. Hitchcock shows us a close-up of the rifle falling down the stairs, and then the camera cranes right up the stairs into a close-up of Lila Kedrova’s face as the Countess says, ‘My sponsor, my sponsor for United States of America’. It’s simultaneously camp and touching. Kedrova is giving a charismatic, theatrical performance (her elegant posture on the stairs, her voicing of the dialogue) that moves us through the recognisable humanity she expresses. For her all is lost. And Hitchcock wants us to see this enough to arrange a complex shot that is in itself arresting, spectacular. The American couple has a chance; for the Polish Countess in East Berlin, there’s no more hope. And Hitchcock and Kedrova, together, know how to convey the drama and truth of that moment, a moment where spectacle and feeling are rendered one. It’s lovely.

Dress, Décor, Angle and Framing as Part of Mise-en-scéne:

 

I understand that Hitchcock was disappointed with Torn Curtain but was pleased with what he’d been able to accomplish as an exercise on light and composition. These are some aspects of the film that aroused my interest and delighted my sight.

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In Denmark, her brown Edith Head suit, making a clean image against the green of the bed-spread. That dress, which she’ll wear throughout the film, albeit against different backdrops, topped by different head-coverings, and under different over-coats, is a multi-purpose foreground re-accented as the requirements of the drama require.

 

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In East Berlin, greyer, each looking in a different direction; neither clear about where they stand as a couple; she in the light and facing light thinking that he, in the dark and against the wall, might be a traitor
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The wonderful scene at the museum where Michael is trying to lose the ‘bodyguard’ who’s tailing him, surrounded by treasures of ancient civilisations and by much beauty, but empty of visitors. The museum is itself a ruin and the emptiness of the place evokes that culture itself is in ruins in that culture, both presence and absence, an echo-chamber of danger.

 

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The fantastic looking scene where the couple escapes from the University of Leipzig. Why does this type of shot and framing still thrill in a Hitchcock film when it’s become a cliché since?

 

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At the Ballet in East Berlin, in a scene that echoes and rhymes with the one in the university, with the same ruse used to escape, but now the couple buffeted by the crowd, trying to stick together, circumstances isolating and separating them, but both desperately trying to hold onto each other: a metaphor for the whole film and beautifully done.

Poetry:

The reason why I started off writing this piece, but which I’ve left to the end, is that even in the worst of Hitchcock one finds moments of real poetry. In the scene below there are many things to admire. I decided to start the clip in the previous scene, so that you can see the close-up on Julie Andrews’ face as she says ‘East Berlin, but that’s behind the Iron Curtain’. That will rhyme with the very last shot of the scene, which is a masterpiece of expression. In between note how the cut is on Michael’s face seen slightly from behind now on the plane. From her to him, each facing in the opposite direction, and now in a new context, note how the camera tracks slowly back to allow us to take the new context in, and in full, before the camera pans right to a close-up of the befuddled Sarah. Note how the cutting speeds up when he sees her, the repetition of the tracking shot, but much faster as Michael heads to Sarah, then the change in direction but at the same speed as he approaches her. They’re superb choices.

 

But the pièce-de-resistance is the last shot on Sarah. That last close-up, after Michael has told her to stop following him and go home, which rhymes with the close-up of her finding out he’s going to East Berlin, but now filmed from a slightly higher angle to indicate Michael’s point-of-view on Sarah,  and then the beautiful way the image begins to dissolve, goes out of focus, undulates, distorts. Note Hitchcock’s confidence in the length of its duration. And then the quick cut onto the opening doors of the plane with its view of East Berlin’s airport. It’s like all Sarah’s hopes, dreams, are extinguished and expire in that moment where everything goes out of focus and distorts only to be confronted by the harshness of a new reality with all her past knowledge put into doubt. It’s beautiful. A great moment of cinema. And one of many reasons to see the film.

 

I saw this on a gorgeous blu-ray transfer from Universal Studios: Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection.

José Arroyo

It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, USA, 1946)

frank capra's it's a wonderful life

James Stewart is so great in It’s a Wonderful Life: the repressed fury, frustration, the dashed hopes sometimes relieved by an evident yearning, the bitterness, all dazzlingly displayed by the actor and sometimes captured by Capra in a sweeping extreme close-up that swoops up on that anguished face and confronts the audience with it. A marvel of a performance, beautifully directed.

The film’s a holiday staple, and everyone’s seen it several times, but it’s much darker than one remembers; George Bailey is after all a man driven to suicide at Christmas. The warm feelings the memory of the film gives rise to seem due to the beginning (the view of community communicated through the idealised Bedford Falls), and then the very last scene (the utopian view of friends and family at Christmas), and one forgets most of what leads up to it.

It is after all the story of a man whose every hope is thwarted: he doesn’t get to go to college, he doesn’t get to travel around the world, he doesn’t even get to go on a honeymoon. Duty, obligation, responsibility, the need and well-being of others, all take precedence over his own wishes and thwart him at every turn.

The only desire he manages to achieve is that for his wife, and even that seems to catch him by surprise (and Capra’s staging of this, in close-up, whilst they seem to be talking about everything else but, manages to somehow indicate that desire growing off-screen as a both a physical manifestation and as a dawning of feeling – a tour de force of staging). As my friend Nicky Smith observed, one is reminded of the episode of Friends where Phoebe says it ought to be called ‘It’s a Sucky Life’.

It’s a crime that the film has been colourised as the black and white cinematography by Joseph Walker in the original is so beautiful. It’s really shot as a noir and even Sunny Bedford Falls is enmeshed in shadows. But it’s no surprise that dramatically the film works even when in colour. It’s a marvel of story-telling: the prayers going up to the heavens, the Heavenly spirits being made aware of the happenings of those normally too insignificant to bother with; the setting forth of a life, the way the story arrests time, speeds it up; the creation of an alternate universe; the ability to identify with George even as he looks forth on his own life and on a world without him in it. In telling us the story, the film also seems to be saying, ‘this is what cinema can be. It can do anything. Isn’t it in itself heavenly’?

It’s a film full of delights: the set-piece of the opening dance where they all end up in the swimming pool; the scene where Donna Reed loses her robe; the run on the bank; the camera rushing alongside George running through Bedford Falls and through Pottersville; Thomas Mitchell’s wonderful characterization of George’s uncle; Gloria Grahame’s even more delightful characterization of the hottest girl in town (‘this ole thing. I only wear it when I don’t care what I look like’).

 

Seeing it recently on a big screen,I liked it more than I ever have and found it better than I remembered though one has to accept some things being what they are (bits of capracorn, the sexism, the tinge of racism — all no worse than in any other film of the period — but there nonetheless). There are problems with the film: Did Capra really believe that being an old maid librarian is the worst thing that could befall a woman outside of becoming a prostitute?; doesn’t Pottersville look a lot more fun than Bedford Falls? But what are these next to James Stewart’s towering performance, surely one of the very greatest in the history of cinema, and next to the dazzling display of filmic story-telling that Capra and Co put on display?

Addendum: In his recent How to Watch a Movie (London: Profile Books, 2015), David Thomson intriguingly writes that ‘in the decades since its first showing, it has grown easier for audiences to imagine a question mark in the title and to realize that the idyllic Bedford Falls of 1947 has turned into Pottersville, the drab plan of heartless capitalism pursued by the town’s tycoon (played by Lionel Barrymore)..think of that story shifted to the era of 2008 and the anxieties of middle-class existence. Once upon a time It’s a Wonderful Life was a Christmas staple, but try showing the picture to a modern young audience without rueful irony crushing nostalgia.’ I wonder if he’s right.

Addendum 2: According to Nicky Smith: ‘It’s a fascinating experience at the cinema. Middle aged blokes absolutely love it. And listen for the rustle around the auditorium as people gradually realise that George ‘s best friends are called Bert and Ernie’.

José Arroyo

Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, USA, 1941)

sullivan's travels

Joel McCrea is John Lloyd Sullivan, the very successful director of Hey, Hey in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Pants of 1939 who has decided that he cannot continue making frivolous, light films in a world where Europe’s at war and where there’s so much unemployment and misery in America, not when he’s got the greatest educational tool ever invented by man at his disposal: movies!

He convinces his studio bosses to let him make ‘O Brother, Where Art Though?’, a film about the plight of the common people; realistic, pedagogical, depressing. ‘I want this picture to be a document! I want to hold a mirror up to life! I want this to be a picture of dignity! A true canvas of the suffering of humanity!’ Nothing could terrify the movie moguls more, but Sullivan is so successful that they have no choice but to agree to let him make it, though he in turn concedes to put ‘a little sex in it’.

When the studio bosses point out that the reason he makes such light, optimistic and successful films is that he’s had a privileged life –what does he know about misery? — Sullivan decides to dress as a tramp, go on the road, and find out. At first everything conspires to bring him back to Hollywood, but then, just as he feels he’s done enough research and he’s out handing out dollar bills to those less fortunate than he who helped him on his quest, events conspire to send him to jail, put him in a prison chain-gang and teach him what real misery is really like. As he learns that, he also learns the value of the light, the frivolous – what joy, laughter and entertainment can bring to a world full of misery — i.e. he learns the value of his own work.

In many ways Sullivan’s Travels is a self-serving and self-affirming film, with Sturges and Hollywood patting themselves on the back for doing exactly what they’ve always done. But it’s also a marvelously entertaining film that shoots the audience with such a quick, smart, and witty spray of jokes that you might miss out if you’re not quick on the uptake. It’s great to see a film that assumes each individual member of the audience is the smartest and brightest person in any room.

Sullivan’s Travels successfully satirises Hollywood and the audience’s own trivial sentimentalising of the poor whilst offering quite a critique of: Hollywood’s pretensions; the issue of class in America; the inadequate system of poor relief, with prayer often being the price – non-negotiable – of a floor to sleep in and a bite to eat; and the brutality of prison chain-gangs. It might even have tried to critique race, certainly the NAACP commended it in 1942; though what the film does on this score now sits a bit uncomfortably.

David Thomson has written that ‘Sullivan’s Travels falls flat when it tries to move from comedy to pathos.’[1]I’m not sure I agree with him. Firstly, I don’t think the film sets out for pathos. It tries to reveal poverty and injustice, to make the audience aware of it, but not to induce pathos, or at least not until Sullivan himself is imprisoned and seems to have no way out. Until then, we see the misery from the outside; from Sullivan’s eyes, but the eyes of an outsider whose experiences are purely optional; and the jokes, the winks, the acknowledgment that even your brothers in the soup-kitchen can steal the very shoes from your feet unless you have eyes in the back of your head and can see whilst sleeping, all take priority over the arousal of emotion.

Pathos has no bigger enemy than laughter. But it’s Sturges choice not his lack. Personally, I rejoice in that choice. When McCrea, feverish and trembly from illness, reiterates his convictions as if a spirit of daffy do-gooding giddiness has taken hold of him in Church —  ‘nothing is going to stop me. I’m going to find out how it feels to be in trouble. Without friends, without credit, without checkbook, without name. Alone’ — he’s irresistible; as close to reaching the endearingly irrational heights of the great  screwball dames (Colbert, Hepburn, Lombard) as any male actor except for Cary Grant.

Andrew Sarris indirectly touches on this and attributes it not only to McCrea but also to Sturges. In fact he sees it as a characteristic of Sturges’ work: ‘It is as if his characters were capable of being lit from within by the cartoonist’s device of the instantly ignited light-bulb in the hero’s skull. Joel McCrea’s movie director in Sullivan’s Travels experiences and expresses such a flash of practical creativity at the stirring moment in the film when he proclaims himself to be his own murderer’.[2] Although I don’t quite agree with Thomson that the film falls flat when it moves from comedy to pathos, the film’s various changes in tone and register, seem to catch the audience by surprise.

There are those who delight in the surprise. Steven J. Schneider in his appreciation of the film in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die has written that the script is a tour de force and ‘brings together a remarkable range of genres, including slapstick, action, melodrama, social documentary, romance, musical and prison movie.’[3] But there are also others who have found in these shifts, a loose and shambly shapelessness. Manny Farber called Sullivan’s Travels ‘immature in its philosophy, formless and without a single discernible characterization; but it had an astonishing display of film technique.[4]

We can agree on the philosophy and on the astonishing technique; but as to the rest, I’ve already mentioned McCrea and his performance as Sullivan and I find the film formally clever too, beginning at the end of an ‘entertainment’ with a fight scene on a train that’s still thrilling, and later, near the end, signaling clearly to the audience that the film is at a turning point and that it needs to unravel the tangle of plot its gotten itself into before the closing credits. The montage with which it does so is a marvel of narrative economy that can still thrill those who are interested in visual story-telling.

Veronica Lake is ‘The Girl’. She’s given no name. And this might have been part of why Farber accuses the film of ‘lacking characterization’. However, ‘The Girl’ is a function rather than a character and thus needs no name and no characterization, though Veronica Lake is a very memorable look and presence in it. Moreover, she matches up with McCrea beautifully, the disparity in their height alone creating an element of comedy that doesn’t intrude on the romance needed to put ‘a little sex in it’. It’s also joy to see all the Sturges stalwarts: William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Eric Blore and other wonderful comic actors who would have been just as famous to audiences of the period as the stars.

There are scenes that still linger in the mind: the opening sequence, the sex-starved sister locking McCrea in his room, the first real experience of a Hooverville, the black parishioners singing ‘Let My People Go’, the pettiness of the bureaucrat in the train station, the injustice of the court, the brutality of the chief of the chaing-gang.

Sturges achieves what the film says on one level isn’t possible; a film that both documents and critique its time — brimming with social relevance — that teaches us a lesson on the social conditions of the Depression, the filmmaking practices of the Hollywood of the period and on how brilliant and bright American comedy once was – directed by one of its greatest practitioners — but with some feeling, thrills, chills, lots of laughs ‘and a little sex in it’.

José Arroyo

*** Film buffs might be interested in knowing that, according to Pauline Kael, ‘Sturges himself can be glimpsed behind Veronica Lake on a set inside the movie studio’.[5]


[1] David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, London: Little and Brown, 2002, p. 846.
[2] Andrew Sarris, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet”: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927-1949, Oxord: Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 323
[3] Steven J. Schneider, ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ Steven Jay Schneider, General Editor, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, London: A Quintet Book, 2004, p. 180.
[4] Manny Farber, Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber, edited by Robert Polito, A Special Publication of the Library of America, 2009, p. 40.
[5] Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982, p. 568.