Rich and Strange: romantic comedy needs Hitchcock’s obsessions to make it richer and stranger

Alfred Hitchcock, “Rich and Strange” aka “East of Shanghai” (1931)

One of a group of films Hitchcock made in his lean early-1930’s period – the others include ‘Number 17″, “Juno and the Paycock”  and “Waltzes from Vienna” – when he was under contractual obligations which forced him to make films  with skimpy budgets, less-than-willing actors and uninteresting subject matter, this romantic comedy can be construed as a morality tale of how sudden wealth can test and undermine a couple’s loyalties on one level and as a satire on British insular middle class values and aspirations. White-collar wage slave Fred (Henry Kendall), after yet another stressful journey home from work, is fed up with his bank clerk job routine and wishes for a long holiday. He and his wife Emily (Joan Barry) – they have been married for eight years but have no children – receive a huge inheritance from his rich uncle and they decide to use the money to go on a cruise to east Asia. Initially excited about the change to their routine, Fred and Emily rapidly discover the disaster awaiting both of them: Fred gets seasick and has to stay in bed all day, leaving his wife prey to the attentions of a worldly cruise passenger, Commander Gordon (Percy Marmont), whom she falls in love with. On a rare occasion when Fred ventures out onto deck he bumps into a woman (Betty Amann) posing as a princess and falls heavily for her charms. Fred and Emily’s marriage becomes strained to the point where they seriously consider divorcing each other. Unsurprisingly the “princess” steals all the couple’s money and disappears when the ship docks at Singapore and Fred and Emily must return to Britain in whatever way they can.

Flitting from a slapstick opening scene that harks back to the silent era of films to lightweight farce (often centred on the pathetic foibles of a dowdy single woman [Elsie Randolph] desperate to find shipboard romance but continually being rebuffed) to satire, soapie romance melodrama, dark comedy and almost-suspenseful disaster film, “Rich and Strange” defies easy genre categorisation. In the 1930’s the mix of genre elements in the film contributed to its sinking at the box office but in the present day such a mix might gain the film art-house status as a post-modern movie. How public attitudes do change. The theme of two individuals being outside their usual comfort zone to be tested by different people and circumstances extends to the making of the film itself: much of the film lacks dialogue and title cards are used in typical silent-movie style to indicate change in location as the cruise-liner powers on or a change in plot. For most of its running time the movie bounces between Emily and her charming though subtly creepy lover, discreetly conducting their affair at night and in places away from inquisitive eyes, and Fred and his vampy “princess” who are all over each other in comic ways; the pace can be slow and there’s no sense of the strain between Emily and Freddy that must surely be building up to the inevitable outburst when they arrive in Singapore. Action starts to speed up once the couple board a cargo ship which meets with disaster at sea but even here with danger present, tension is missing with Fred and Emily taking the ship’s sinking and their rescue by a pirate crew in their stride.

The acting is a strange mix: Kendall often over-acts and Barry has a more subtle, natural style. This is deliberate to show the contrast between their characters: both are naive and completely out of their depth in their new surrounds but Emily has more brain and self-awareness and Fred is a complete klutz. Marmont portrays the charming and sensitive naval man well, eventually revealing a conniving and ultimately demanding and inconsiderate nature, but his motivation for trailing Emily is unclear; by contrast Amann’s vampy scam artist is no more than a stock character with the occasional insightful remark. Character development is uneven: one of the couple is definitely made older and wiser but the other appears not to have learned much so whether the marriage will survive now that they’re back in familiar territory is another question.

Technically the film is accomplished with location filming done in some places and Fred’s seasickness simulated in scenes that go up and down drunkenly, blur or have print leaping out of a dinner menu. The secretive nature of Emily’s flirtation is highlighted in an almost fetishistic panning shot of her legs swathed in a gown stepping over chains and ropes and their shadows as she walks along the ship’s deck, followed by Gordon, at night. The couple’s stupefaction at the attractions of Paris is captured in an excited montage of Paris scenes intercut with a shot of their faces with glazed eyes mechanically looking from left to right. In an age before the Second World War when British military commanders derided the capabilities of Japan’s armed forces and were made to look foolish when that country captured Singapore in 1942, Hitchcock’s portrayal of Asians is sympathetic and even uses Fred and Emily’s interactions with the Chinese pirate crew to send up the couple’s ignorance and prejudices and to indulge in some black humour. Are they really eating cat stew or is it just coincidence that the pirate pinned up the cat-skin on the cabin wall just as they’re hoeing into their breakfast? On the other hand the pirates don’t say anything or do very much – they look on impassively as one of their number accidentally drowns – suggesting perhaps the film’s budget left no room for an interpreter.

In spite of the film’s uneven plot in which the middle part is very drawn out and the end is rushed – the pirate crew appears to deliver the couple safely to their destination and they presumably get help from the nearest British consulate to get home – the two main characters, especially Emily, have enough appeal as ordinary people with all their faults and lack of knowledge or interest about the world around them that set them up for the Holiday from Hell for viewers to identify with them and follow their adventures. There’s actually potential within the plot for Hitchcock to insert some of his beloved obsessions to reinforce the theme of deception – Commander Gordon could have sinister designs on Emily for all we know, Fred could foil the naval man’s plot to off her by sheer accident or idiocy and the couple, once they work out they’re both being hoodwinked, realise they need each other after all – so why he didn’t do so remains a mystery. Of Hitchcock’s early films, this one represents a lost opportunity for Hitchcock to make in the mould of films he was accustomed to. It’s a well-made film with some fine acting that could do with a more finely tuned plot and some of Hitchcock’s favourite themes and motifs.

Waltzes from Vienna: Hitchcock ill at ease with musical comedy of Johann Strauss II

Alfred Hitchcock, “Waltzes from Vienna” (1934)

What’s this? – a musical comedy about Johann Strauss II and his waltz “The Blue Danube” by Alfred Hitchcock? The Master of Suspense made this film during his lean early-1930’s period when he had more failures than successes working in different film genres and was seriously doubting his ability as a director. Some of that self-doubt is apparent in the movie itself: it revolves around  Johann Strauss II (Esmond Knight) aka Schani who’s torn between his love for a young woman Rasi (Jessie Matthews) and his desire to write and conduct music. The young woman demands that he give up his music and follow her in her father’s tearoom / bakery business which the young man loathes and has no aptitude for. Add to that mix the young man’s father (Edmund Gwenn) who disdains his son’s efforts at writing music as he secretly fears being upstaged. If that’s not enough headache for you, there’s a wily Countess (Fay Compton) who has designs on the young man under the pretence of encouraging him in his musical ambitions. Poor Schani, wanting to please everyone at once and to follow his true path, can’t make up his mind between the women and their demands, and the love triangle of Schani, Rasi and the Countess provides the background and structure against which Schani casually coughs out his signature work.

At least Hitchcock preserved some semblance of reality in this slapstick farce: since the emphasis is on how Schani created his major work, the ever-present love triangle is allowed to continue indefinitely and the coda is suitably ambiguous if unsatisfactory for musical comedy audiences at the time. Other Hitchcock touches are present insofar as the director was able to sneak them in: a character falls down a staircase for laughs and early in the film Schani stumbles through a dress shop and meets several young ladies in various states of undress. Though Matthews only sings one song – the movie was supposed to be a showcase for her singing talent – her character is a spirited filly determined to wrest Schani away from the Countess even if her own jealousy destroys him. The Countess Helga von Stahl herself, married to buffoonish Prince Gustav (Frank Vosper) who features in the film for laughs, seems a benevolent mentor and patron but her gracious and refined approach masks her passion for Schani. Here are two women who are doubles of each other, neither of them a complete angel or devil but a mixture of the two and having the power to crush Schani in some way: a clever Hitchcockian device to insert into an otherwise lightweight comedy though the 1930’s parameters of the genre and the plot being a ficititious soap opera about a real person don’t permit the conflict to play out fully in the movie. The only assurance viewers have is that whichever woman Schani chooses beyond the confines of the movie, he will lose an essential part of himself and the woman will be dissatisfied with the husk that remains. Matthews and Compton play their respective roles as twins well but in different ways; in acting skill, Compton wins out over Matthews as the languid Hitchcockian-blonde lady who nurses unfulfilled desires.

Knight and Matthews lack spark in their scenes together and Knight seems wooden in a role that calls for hesitancy, indecisiveness and maybe not a little stiffness. As for the support, Gwenn is a dark, almost malevolent figure (something of Hitchcock’s fear of male-dominated authority comes into the character) while other male-authority figures that appear are comics who treat Schani disdainfully: Prince Gustav, otherwise an out-and-out clown, treats Schani as a hat-stand almost violently and Rasi’s dad never accepts his potential son-in-law as heir to his business. The message is clear: as an artist, Schani will always be an outsider at whichever level of society he tries to enter. Interestingly, only women can allow him that access.

The slapstick seems forced and predictable and viewers may get the impression that Hitchcock was uncomfortable using it. The real value the film offers lies in its technical proficiency: “Waltzes …” just about revels in deep focus shots, long panning shots – there’s one outstanding left-to-right panning shot of a festival in the last third of the movie – and a shot featuring a zoom effect used on the Countess as she wraps up her copy of Schani’s “The Blue Danube” score; the shot quiickly morphs into a shot of Rasi wrapping her copy of the score, emphasising Rasi and the Countess as polarised twins. Close-ups of Rasi that stress her fresh-faced beauty are frequent and in the festival scenes, there are many close-ups of the musicians playing their instruments and of the instruments themselves that stress repetition and harmonisation. The voyeuristc camera gets a good workout: in one scene, the camera glides slowly from left to right around a candelabra, then gradually traces a semi-circle and draws close to Schani at the piano and the Countess behind him performing a song. The sets are minimal due to a low budget but are unintnentionally effective as their spareness throws the focus onto the actors.

“Waltzes …” might have worked better if the plot had included some (if not a complete) resolution of the love triangle rather than leaving it open and continuous, and wit and situation comedy substituted for slapstick and farce. There are dark elements in the love triangle and Schani’s relationship with his father that could have been teased up more. The stingy budget allocated to the move meant that only one song and various repetitions of “The Blue Danube” appear and this detracts from the movie in many ways: songs in musicals often express a character’s feelings and motivations and these are where darker psychological aspects to Rasi and the Countess could have been worked in. Fear, jealousy, father-son relationships and the destructive power of romantic love become significant themes under Hitchcock’s direction and could have been potential sources of tension and suspense that might add substance to the fluffy plot.

Secret Agent (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): morality of espionage is questioned in an ordinary film lacking suspense

Alfred Hitchcock, “Secret Agent” (1936)

The surprising thing about this film is that lead actor John Gielgud plays such a wooden and unappealing “hero” here after a distinguished background of Shakespearean heroes on stage. But that’s one of Hitchcock’s hallmarks: getting actors into roles opposed to what they usually played at the time. This also applies to another actor featured in this film: Peter Lorre, better known for playing movie villains, plays (or perhaps overplays) a comic and eccentric assassin known only as the General. Other Hitchcock motifs in “Secret Agent” include a MacGuffin figure in the form of a character, Caypor (Percy Marmont), who is also an innocent / wronged man (two motifs in one), a spiral staircase (wow, another two motifs in one), a cool blonde bombshell in the form of Elsa (Madeleine Carroll), a love triangle, grand locations in Switzerland and significant plot developments that take place on a train travelling through central Europe. With these and a story promising lots of suspense and a murder or two, “Secret Agent” should be a great Hitchcock film, right? Unfortunately for once, the Manager of Suspense doesn’t manage with all his weapons at hand, an excellent cast and a script based on two stories by noted British writer W Somerset Maugham to deliver to his high standareds. “Secret Agent” provides well-paced entertainment but the suspense is just not there.

The main problem with “Secret Agent” is its uneven character development. Gielgud’s would-be hero Ashenden, a former writer who fakes his death so he can carry out a mission to assassinate a mysterious German spy, gets almost nothing to do apart from dithering and wringing his hands about the morality of his work.  Peter Lorre’s General who’s supposedly his sidekick does the work hunting down and killing enemy spies – he’s a professional assassin after all. Maybe Ashenden himself is the MacGuffin figure to provide cover for the General, the real hero spy. Ashenden meets Elsa as the spy assigned to be his pretend wife; she’s all gung-ho about being a spy while Ashenden takes on the assignment rather reluctantly. As the mission progresses and the General disposes of the wrong man, Elsa realises the true danger involved and wants out of the mission. At this point she’s in love with Ashenden who, on discovering Caypor’s innocence, determines to find the real spy. Surprise, surprise, the real spy is a rival for Elsa’s affections: Robert Marvin (Robert Young) who completes the love triangle that encompasses Ashenden and Elsa.

While Gielgud’s acting is very understated here, the same can’t be said of Madeleine Carroll and Peter Lorre who all but eat up the screen between them. Lorre displays great comic talent and timing, particularly in the chocolate factory scene where he notices a piece of paper sticking out of a chocolate box on a mass assembly line and doggedly follows the note, even going up a fragile spiral staircase. He over-acts with rolling eyes and exaggerated expressions and he delivers his lines (which include comic one-liners) awkwardly but his cartoony, stereotyped foreigner presentation is a foil to Gielgud’s dour style. Viewers might get the impression Hitchcock was feeding Lorre lines for pure comic effect – someone should have told him when to stop. Carroll is shown off to great effect by hat brims, close-ups and camera angles that emphasise the sculpted structure of her face and her glossy blonde curls but in spite of (or because of) her character’s efforts at agonising about her mission and feeling torn between Ashenden and Marvin, Carroll makes less impression as a feisty femme than she did in her previous effort for Hitchcock (“The 39 Steps”). It falls to Robert Young to provide much needed charm, glamour and requisite menace as the German spy posing as an American playboy.

The DVD copy I saw didn’t mention digital remastering and the quality of the film stock used in the transition to DVD was poor.  Some of Hitchcock’s skill in setting up scenes was lost to me.  Some scenes looked dark or flat and I missed tiny nuances in people’s acting and facial expressions. There are some stand-out scenes worth mentioning though: an early one takes place in a church where Ashenden and the General attempt to meet a fellow spy; organ music in the background is stuck on one sinister chord that gets louder and louder and increases the tension of the scene until the two men discover the man they’re after – lying dead across an organ! Another scene is Caypor’s death scene which actually takes place off-screen in a clever way, Ashenden, voyeur-like, witnessing the murder through a long-range telescope.  Unfortunately Hitchcock ruins the scene by featuring a telepathic dog in another scene and cutting between the prophetic pooch and Ashenden watching the dog’s master being killed. The film’s opening scene of a funeral, done entirely without  dialogue, is a great introduction that harks back to Hitchcock’s former days as a director of silent movies.

On the other hand, the British air raid on the train and its derailment are too much a deus ex machina ploy to resolve the problem of the three British spies escaping Marvin and a whole unit of German soldiers. Miraculously the four main characters survive the crash while the soldiers around them are killed! After the climax in which Marvin and the General confront each other, the movie hurriedly relieves Ashenden and Elsa of their onerous duties as spies and they are free to live their lives together without moral anguish. There’s little suspense in this important part of the plot and viewers may ponder what exactly Ashenden has done in the aftermath of the crash scene that gets him a medal. Is he taking the credit for what the General actually does? Now who’s the morally upright person here?

The lesson of the film is that espionage is an unattractive business in which people must swallow their moral scruples and only those who are a bit psychotic, like the General, or who are sociopathic, like Marvin, can be successful spies. Yet it’s a necessary if distateful way of avoiding or winning wars as shown in the montage of news headlines right at the end of the film. Deception is a necessary part of the spy game as Elsa learns, almost at the cost of her life; it’s also part of the love triangle she’s caught up in – does Ashenden truly have feelings for her? and does Marvin really love her as well? Is there no better way for people to transact normal affairs of daily life or affairs of global importance without resorting to deception and subterfuge that compromise their morals?

This is one of several British films Hitchcock made in the thirties that he could have remade at a later date. It can be argued that he did (sort of) remake it in “North by Northwest” which also carries much of Hitchcock / Carroll’s other collaboration “The 39 Steps”. Viewed chronologically, several of Hitchcock’s films appear as variations of one meta-movie that must have been continuously scrolling in his head throughout his life; films that he kept on refining but never capturing completely the film in his head. “Secret Agent” is just one such movie – and a fairly average one at that. While the bulk of the story is credible enough, leaving aside the train crash that mysteriously spares some people and not others, there’s very little tension and suspense in the film, particularly in the love triangle, and a lot of that is due to a lack of chemistry between Gielgud’s underdone spy and Carroll’s more frivolous character.

Downhill: Hitchcock comedy is early showcase of technical innovation and flair

Alfred Hitchcock, “Downhill” (1927)

Before he found his niche as Master of Suspense, the young Alfred Hitchcock made a few films in several genres that include comedy: this early effort, the fifth full-feature film of his career, is a comedy lampooning the customs and attitudes of British upper class society of the late 1920’s. The plot is structured in a way that it probably won’t hold most modern audiences’ attention to the end – it comes in chunks so there’s no flow and as a result tension building towards a climax isn’t possible – but students of history might find some value in the way the story unfolds that reveals people’s attitudes toward money, appearances and reputation at the time. The real worth of “Downhill” is in the techniques and methods Hitchcock used to film the story and emphasise aspects such as mood, atmosphere and the direction of the plot. Motifs that he would use in later films such as “Vertigo” and “Psycho” make an early showing here. We see a keen and eager eye, maybe too eager, for technical innovation and a flair for experimenting with different points of view: the use of the camera to draw in audiences and make them voyeurs and participants in the action that began in the previous film “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” is now coming into full flower.

The plot is a threadbare coming-of-age / downward-spiral story. Teenager Roddy Berwick (Ivor Novello), in his last year at an exclusive boys’ school, is undone by an incident involving his best friend and a waitress for which he’s entirely blameless. He’s expelled by his school and disowned by his father. Berwick’s reluctance to rat on his friend (who needs to stay at school to get a university scholarship) forces him to accept the humiliation of expulsion and rejection so he leaves home to venture into the big bad world. He’s clearly out of his depth; each adventure he has plunges him lower and lower into social and financial misery until rescue and reconciliation arrive at the eleventh hour. In each mishap including the original incident that gets him expelled from school there’s a woman who exploits Berwick for his looks, his money or his youth.

At 34 years of age, Novello was old enough to play Berwick’s old man but as he was co-writer of the play on which “Downhill” is based, I’ll leave the criticism there. Hitchcock must have enjoyed throwing Novello into situations where women manipulate him; Novello’s homosexuality was an open secret in the British arts and culture scene, he was strikingly handsome and presumably well-off in a varied career that included writing songs and plays, and all these aspects of the real-life man are hinted at in his character’s encounters with women. A couple of very early scenes suggest Berwick is uncomfortable with women and may be homosexual which would give an extra frisson to the manipulation that follows. If we allow for overly expressionistic acting which was common in silent films of the period, the acting is not bad and in parts is even natural; Hitchcock allows the actors to talk normally on screen and audiences have to guess what it is they’re saying, there being very few dialogue or title cards. One side-effect is that it’s difficult to tell who or what characters some actors are playing, and even the MacGuffin incident that gets Berwick in trouble isn’t clear: the Internet Movie Database says it is theft, Wikipedia says it is making the waitress pregnant.

The plot is fleshed out by camera shots that use odd angles, unusual points of view, overlapping images and deep focus shooting to emphasise where the plot gets serious, to capture a mood or emotion, or to warn audiences of what’s ahead, among other things. Perhaps there’s too much story-telling rather than narrative at some points in the movie: the bird’s-eye view of the escalator scene, in which viewers see Berwick going down the mechanical steps from the top, is a heavy-handed portent of what’s to befall the youth (the scene takes place just after he leaves home). From a technical viewpoint, the film’s stand-out scenes come near the end where Berwick is packed off home from Marseilles on a ship by some kindly sailors and he suffers delirium and seasickness. The camera hovers from above, like a bird, to suggest dizzyness; and superimposed images in which circles and spirals – and even pumping pistons! (ooh, that’s phallic) – appear in Berwick’s dreams to suggest a disordered mind affected by sickness and starvation. Berwick’s old enemies come together in a dream to jeer at him. Once Berwick is back in London and trying to find his way home on foot, the camera adopts his point of view and staggers with him, with jerky, unfocussed, doubled-up or overlapped images – this is as close as Hitchcock gets to filming in a style modern audiences associate with handheld cameras. Personal points of view are prominent in “Downhill”: in an early scene, an actress leans far back on her chair to see things upside-down and the next camera shot, done from her point of view, is upside-down. Hitchcock also enjoys playing with particular points of view and subverting the assumptions that come with them: in one scene, Berwick appears to be working as a waiter at a restaurant, only for the camera to draw back and show that he is actually a stage actor in a musical revue!

Significantly the only people who treat Berwick kindly and don’t see him as a money-pot are poor and of black or foreign origins: a black woman feeds him soup and kicks a couple of sailors (one black, the other white but definitely not English) into action to help him to the ship. This was one of the rare times Hitchcock made a movie that featured black people sympathetically if stereotypically. There is no indication though that Berwick is thankful for the help or that they are repaid. Though the film is a comedy – and there are plenty of comic moments including the gag of Berwick’s young wife still retaining her ugly, middle-aged lover! – there are plenty of dark moments throughout the odyssey, all highlighted by contrasts of light and shadow that reflect German Expressionist influences.

Whether Berwick learns any lessons about the superficiality of the world that made him or the really important lesson that in his level of society money and appearances talk louder than moral integrity is never clear. Does he become wiser about how the world operates and how it eats up its own innocent children? The film’s resolution and ending suggest maybe not. It’s an interesting intellectual exercise to speculate on what Hitchcock would have done if he had decided to remake the film years later with the resources of Hollywood at his disposal: he would have changed the ending to something more ambiguous and very dark but Berwick might then achieve some kind of enlightenment, self-awareness, redemption and healing. A Freudian psychological subtext would be added to plump up the story and make it more credible.

In spite of a flimsy and out-of-date plot, “Downhill” is worth seeing for the flair and confidence Hitchcock brings to  making the story work. There are many motifs and symbols that appear here which the director would later use in “Vertigo”, especially in its psychedelic dream sequence, and the early film might be seen as a test-drive to that more famous Hollywood work.

The true Hitchcock universe begins with “The Lodger: a Story of the London Fog”

Alfred Hitchcock, “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” (1927)

Only the third film made by a young Alfred Hitchcock, “The Lodger …” already has many of the themes and motifs that would bring its director fame and fortune in a career that spanned nearly half a century. The central theme  revolves around a man who is suspected by police and society at large of being a serial killer: not only is he innocent but he has also resolved for personal reasons to find the killer himself. At the same time, the central character dresses and behaves in ways that encourage people around him to believe he is the criminal: the innocent man and the actual criminal become doppelgängers, another recurring motif in Hitchcock’s world. (Makes you wonder whether H had lost a twin brother  at birth.) There is a wilful blonde woman as well – there are blonde women a-plenty here! – and a love triangle that involves her, the innocent man and another man who is a police detective. The detective is portrayed as a boorish, unlikable character and the police as shown seem ineffective; any constructive work they do takes place off-screen.  A hostile attitude is expressed towards figures and institutions of authority, especially male authority such as the police; on the other hand, female figures of authority such as mothers have a greater psychological hold on men, especially if the men are their sons. A MacGuffin is needed in the film to set off the chain of events. As with other Hitchcock suspense films to follow, the love triangle and the emotions and tensions within take centre stage against a background of rising suspense and suspicion.

London is gripped by a series of murders of fair-haired young women committed by the self-styled Avenger who leaves his calling card of a triangle outlined around his monicker on the victims’ bodies. Just what he’s avenging himself against is never known but the print media goes into a frenzy of reporting the story of his latest outrage, printing it and distributing copies to news boys. Even the back of a paper delivery van is “all eyes” if not ears. Against this context which lasts nearly 20 minutes, viewers meet Daisy Bunting (June Tripp), a showgirl-cum-model reading the news backstage and chatting to her colleagues; she then goes home which is a boarding-house run by her parents. There we see her fiance, Joe (Malcolm Keen), a self-assured police detective who is given the case of searching for and arresting the Avenger, chatting to her folks. During the evening, Mrs Bunting (Marie Ault) takes in a new boarder (Ivor Novello) who is never named but is known only as the Lodger; he is dressed in mysterious dark clothes and carries a black bag. He behaves oddly: on seeing pictures of blonde women in his room, he turns them over and asks Mrs Bunting to take them away. Hearing the newsboy outside his window shouting about the Avenger’s exploits to sell papers, the Lodger shuts the window and closes the curtains.

Over time, the Lodger warms to Daisy and a romance develops between them. His routines arouse the suspicions of her parents and Joe; Joe in particular is jealous of Daisy’s closeness to the Lodger. He obtains a search warrant to search the Lodger’s room and sure enough finds a map, newspaper clippings and a photograph that appear to incriminate the Lodger as the Avenger. The Lodger is handcuffed but before he is led away, Daisy creates a distraction and the Lodger escapes police custody. The two lovers later meet at a pub but arouse the suspicions of the staff and customers. Daisy and the Lodger try to escape and they separate but a mob catches up with the man and beat him severely.

In those days of no dialogue, film-acting was often exaggerated and very mannered so that audiences could see characters’ emotions through their body language. “The Lodger …” is no different in this respect. The Lodger and Joe, as the two rivals for Daisy, contrast strongly in their behaviour and looks. Joe is macho, brusque and assumes proprietorial “rights” over Daisy, declaring that he’ll handcuff the Avenger and then put a ring on Daisy’s finger, as if she’s been colluding with the killer. The Lodger is gentlemanly and sensitive, even effete, and his appearance is refined and beautiful. In a memorable sequence of intense, almost overbearing romantic love scenes, Daisy grabs the Lodger almost savagely while draped over a lounge and a severe minimalist close-up scene shot against a black curtain highlights the lovers’ profiles as they kiss. The passion here is very raw in spite of the two keeping their winter-woollies on! Viewers wanting a more “modern” acting style should note the performances of the actors who play Daisy’s parents; they are outstanding in their ability to show a variety of emotions and thoughts by their facial expressions and body language, and move effortlessly from comedy to seriousness and back.

Influences from the German Expressionist art movement show up in the use of lighting and shadows to create suspense and mystery in several scenes, and in the title cards that indicate the passage of time or a change of scene. Mrs Bunting’s bedroom with the shadow of a window framed on her wall has an almost abstract air. A couple of scenes in which the Buntings and Joe look up at the chandeliers in the kitchen and “see” the Lodger walking on the floor above, and Joe looking at the Lodger’s footprint on the ground, in which a parade of images pass as though on an escalator, hint at Hitchcock’s interest in using film technologies available at the time to their maximum capabilities to express people’s thoughts. The film’s opening shot of a blonde woman screaming as she is being attacked, her hair around her face lit up like a halo, is worth noting: Hitchcock had the actor lie down on a sheet of glass which was lit from behind. Objects like chandeliers and that familiar Hitchcock fixture, the staircase, are given prominence: the staircase comes into its own in a bird’s-eye view shot of the Lodger quickly descending down the stairs, only his hand visible on the bannister as it slides down, and the centre of the staircase-framed shot a huge void.  For all this information, Hitchcock was still finding his way as a film director: there are some editing discontinuities, the sequence of scenes in which the Lodger is attacked by burgeoning crowds looks amateurish and unconvincing with some cringeworthy Christian symbolism, the film’s pacing is slow and the assured confidence of Hitchcock’s later films is yet to develop.

“The Lodger …” strongly suggests that the path to romance and marriage (and the proper conduct of sexual relations) is fraught with danger and violence, especially for women, and there is no surefire safe way of treading that path: both the Lodger and Joe are shown to have a dark side in their natures. If Daisy chooses wisely, she will be rewarded with riches; if not, she may become a prisoner. The film also comments on the role of media (and by implication, film itself) in influencing opinion and generating a particular community mood or emotion that could literally spell the difference between life and death for an individual. Worth watching mainly to see the evolution of a master film-maker and how he develops ideas and themes in a particular film format that would come to full flower in his later work; in particular, fans should watch out for a voyeuristic bathtub scene!

For once it’s a good thing that the ending of “The Lodger …” was changed from Hitchcock’s preferred ambiguous ending which would have made the film a run-of-the-mill thriller. Little did the studio executives who forced the change realise that they were doing Hitchcock a massive favour.

The 39 Steps (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): the movie with the secret code that cracked success for Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps” (1935)

Very loosely based on John Buchan’s novel “The Thirty-Nine Steps” – it’s best if you don’t read the novel first – this movie is an early example, if not the first, of a typical Hitchcock movie. An ordinary, innocent man called Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) accidentally gets caught up in events in which a murder occurs and he finds himself accused of the crime so he must go on the run to prove his innocence and at the same time find the real killer and the reason for the killing. Going on the run means chases through a train with a narrow escape on a bridge and running through the Scottish moors with their famously moody and unpredictable weather and picturesque sheep farms inhabited by cantankerous loner crofter characters. There are the usual plot twists: a local helpful aristocrat turns out to be the head villainous honcho for the spy plot that led to the initial murder and Hannay becoming a fugitive, and the dastardly fellow shoots Hannay at close range; fortunately a Bible in Hannay’s coat chest pocket stops the bullet and Hannay is on his way again. Entanglement with a cool blonde chick called Pamela (Madelaine Carroll) – hey, women were definitely not in the novel except as extras! – and some fleeting encounters with women call attention to Hitchcock’s interest in detailing romantic attachments and the status of marriage as it plays out in individual couples’ lives. The film becomes a combination of romance comedy and a light crime caper with some violence and several scenes of slapstick and coincidence on one level, and on another level an interrogation into love and human relationships and their often fearful and deadly consequences.

The Buchan novel is in the vein of a Fleming / James Bond adventure in which the hero, who happens to have technical expertise and some military experience, cracks part of a code and engages help from a friendly politician while on the lam to discover and foil a German spy plot against the British empire. Hitchcock took the general premise of an innocent lone man on the run plus some other plot details from the book and dressed them with his own particular obsessions and cinematic devices to create something very different and original. The plot is lightweight against the novel but Hitchcock compensates for the flimsy and often implausible story-line with memorable and witty characters played by adept actors, a pace that is constant and which builds up the tension across locations in London and Scotland, and the use of comedy to stir up murky and unpleasant aspects of love, romance and marriage. Things, customs and people are never what they seem and Hitchcock delights in showing us the dark mirror twins of institutions we take for granted: characters who supposedly represent forces of law and order are in cahoots with the crooks; and a stranger who impulsively kisses ladies may be a lady-killer, figuratively rather than literally. The sudden and swift changes in the surface appearance of objects and people, and in the plot itself – for example, up to a certain point action that had occurred on-screen so far might switch to off-screen action recounted by a character – keep the film lively and flowing with continual and teasing suspense and tension.

By necessity, Donat carries the film for at least half its running time until Hannay meets Pamela a second time by chance. Hannay as presented by Donat is smooth and unflappable with an unexpected resourcefulness and bravado, especially in the scene where he blunders into a political meeting and is mistaken for a speaker. Once Hannay and Pamela are thrown together by the fake police, they literally stay together, handcuffs or no handcuffs, to the end of the movie as Pamela learns from eavesdropping on a conversation that Hannay has been framed for murder and she decides to help him. As played by Carroll, Pamela is a feisty and daring young miss used to getting her own way though sometimes it backfires on her. At least Hannay is gentleman enough not to take advantage of her when she pulls her stockings down in the bedroom while his hand is attached to hers with the handcuffs! The film’s coda suggests Hannay and Pamela decide of their own free will to stay linked and the handcuffs, which in the 1930’s might not yet have acquired all its dubious sexual connotations, dangle and glitter suggestively from beneath Hannay’s sleeve. Images and ideas of wedding rings, control, closeness and violence dance before your eyes.

Not surprisingly the film opened doors for its lead stars Donat and Carroll in Hollywood: Carroll’s career subsequently thrived while Donat, due to chronic ill health and general dislike of Hollywood razz-matazz, ended up with a more modest acting career that did include winning a Best Actor Oscar in 1939 for his role in “Goodbye Mr Chips”. As for Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps”, appropriately enough considering its subject matter and the nature of The 39 Steps (different from the novel’s 39 Steps), became his code that cracked access to Hollywood’s resources and actors to make bigger and better movies. How indebted Hitchcock was to this film as his breakthrough to Hollywood can be gleaned from other later films he made which in part could pass as remakes of “The 39 Steps”, revisiting and reinterpreting themes and concepts from that movie.

The War You Don’t See: an incisive and passionate John Pilger documentary

Alan Lowery and John Pilger, “The War You Don’t See” (2010)

Last night (Sunday, 10 April 2011), I caught this documentary presented by veteran Australian journalist John Pilger on the way the news media has presented war to Western audiences on television and in print for much of the 20th century and in the first decade of the 21st. There’s a particular focus on the UK and US news media’s responsibility in reporting war events and the conduct of war accurately and without bias, particularly if the war is a heavily one-sided war which the US, the UK and their allies have instigated against much weaker countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Through interviews with various journalists from the US mainstream news media outlets and the BBC, Pilger shows how far too frequently the news media in these countries have reported the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in ways that prejudice Western audiences against the Iraqi and Afghan civilians and minimise or make invisibile the suffering these people undergo. The reporting also serves to hide and advance the agendas of the governments and the interests of the individuals, corpoations and other institutions that politicians rely on for election campaign money and support.

According to some of the promotion for this doco, the emphasis was on the practice of embedding in which journalists travel with the military on assignments and report incidents from the military point of view. The opportunity this gives the military to shape the reporter’s view to the extent that it can decide what the reporter can see or not see, and report in a way that favours the military and its understanding and interpretation of an incident, is pretty obvious. My impression though was that the documentary didn’t spend very much time examining this practice, both from a historical point of view (as in tracing the history of embedment from the First World War or the American Civil War or when it first started) and from a current viewpoint of someone who actually did go on a mission with soldiers, reported on what the soldiers did or were supposed to do, and then had the report vetted by the soldiers or their senior officers before giving it to the news editor.

The documentary did rather better looking at the collusion between the US armed forces and the Hollywood film industry in making war movies since the 1940’s that emphasise American heroism, self-sacrifice, suffering and soldier camaraderie while ignoring the equivalent, often much greater, among the enemy gooks and ragheads; even here though, while the documentary did good work trashing movies like “The Hurt Locker”, it just didn’t go far enough to examine how so close the collusion is that Hollywood film-makers now routinely consult US armed forces personnel in making war movies and tailor scripts to suit the Pentagon’s tastes. Hollywood also must submit all war movies for pre-screening by top Pentagon officials who can order late changes to the movie even at the expense of historical accuracy before the movies can go into cinemas: if this practice were widely known among the public, there would be a huge outcry but Pilger makes no mention of it.

Likewise Pilger’s examination of the heavy bombing of Fallujah in 2004 doesn’t include a brief look at the almost tragicomic series of events, beginning with US troops’ take-over of a school and their refusal to negotiate with the parents of the schoolchildren, escalating through the lynching of four Blackwater mercenaries who might have been set up by their employer to the US army’s decision to attack twice, first in August and then in November in 2004. How these events were covered in Western media, particularly the lynching incident which generated fury among the US public, isn’t mentioned. The aftermath of the bombings which include recent reports of an astonishing rise in birth defects in children born in Fallujah after 2004, together with doctors’ warnings to all female residents never to have children, and how these were reported by the BBC and other news outlets is also ignored.

I’m not sure how the Israeli commando attacks on the Gaza flotilla in 2010 merit mention in a documentary like this; the whole drama itself deserves a separate documentary treatment. There was much about the BBC’s reporting of the Gaza flotilla’s adventures that Pilger could have raked the organisation over – the BBC only started taking an interest in the flotilla when it was intercepted by Israeli forces – but the documentary’s focus was mainly on the film released by the Israeli Defense Forces showing the activists on the Mavi Marmara purportedly attacking the commandos before they reached the ferry. The murders of nine Mavi Marmara passengers (one of whom was a US citizen whose death was ignored by US mainstream news media), done execution-style, were mentioned briefly. No mention though of the Israelis’ treatment of all the surviving flotilla passengers, once they were on dry land, which included people being beaten (a Greek man got a broken leg) and being forced to parade before baying crowds: that was very much off everyone’s radar here.

The documentary is very good and Pilger’s interviews of various talking heads are incisive but the film’s organisation, especially in its latter half, should have been tightened and restricted more to investigating the reporting of the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how news journalists and their employers are under considerable pressure from both governments and armed forces to report war events in a particular way that favours continued prosecution of war. At nearly 100 minutes in length, the documentary seems very long (it’s quite dry and heavy on interviews) and the Mavi Marmara incident really should have been cut out as its particular focus on the IDF propaganda clip is irrelevant to the overall subject.

I’m disappointed that Pilger neglected to examine the possible effects of news reporting that favours a pro-war agenda on people and societies. I imagine the effects of such biased reporting can be very far-reaching: among other things, the sufferings of both Iraqi and Afghan civilians on one side, and of the soldiers and their families, are minimised and ignored to the extent that both governments and the public end up trivialising them, especially if some Iraqis and Afghans escape their hell and try to claim asylum overseas; and the reporting itself may encourage governments and the military to believe in their own invincibility and to spread war and destruction into neighbouring countries as is currently happening in Pakistan from Afghanistan under US President Obama’s watch. War becomes a self-perpetuating activity that individuals, the armed forces, corporations and governments come to rely on to justify the money and resources spent.

Not “Frenzied” enough: a re-run of familiar ideas for Hitchcock but no more

Alfred Hitchcock, “Frenzy” (1972)

Coming at the tail-end of the UK film director’s illustrious career, “Frenzy” is a straightforward murder thriller set in London in the early 1970s. On second thoughts, maybe it was straightforward only for Hitchcock, not his audience: the film carries familiar Hitchcock devices such as the idea of an innocent man being accused of crime or some other deed and being pursued or arrested by authorities while the real perpetrator is at large still, and the killer possibly has a strange relationship with his mother. Scenes of straight-out sadism and sexual violence with references to serial killer psychology are balanced by comedy, farce and graveyard humour. For all that though, “Frenzy” feels like just a walk in the park for Hitchcock for this viewer, partly because of its scaled-down focus on ordinary working people in London, and partly because while it repeats several of Hitchcock’s favourite motifs it doesn’t do much new with them. Neither does it demonstrate or suggest anything that might indicate a new creative direction for the film-making legend.

Former pilot Richard Blaney (Jon Finch) finds himself at the centre of a police hunt after his ex-wife Brenda (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) and new squeeze Babs (Anna Massey) are found dead on separate occasions, both of them having been killed by a serial rapist / killer nicknamed the Necktie Murderer who has been terrorising the women of London for some time. Blaney seeks help from a friend, a vegetable seller called Bob Rusk (Barry Foster), who gives him shelter but betrays him to the police. Despite Blaney’s protestations of innocence, the police promptly press charges and hustle him quickly through a court and Blaney ends up in jail. In the meantime a good-natured police inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) realises that Blaney may be innocent after he comes across evidence linking Rusk to Babs’s murder. He is later informed that Blaney has escaped from prison and realises the man may be heading to Rusk’s apartment to avenge the deaths of his ex-wife and girlfriend.

As audiences learn the identity of the Necktie Murderer within the film’s first half-hour, “Frenzy” turns its focus onto aspects of Blaney’s character, background and behaviour and various coincidences that suggest to others that he’s the most likely person to be the murderer. Blaney’s been down on his luck lately, having been sacked from work and is in need of money; he’s impulsive, hot-tempered, self-centred and is capable of violent acts. He nurses grudges and doesn’t ingratiate himself with others. Rusk on the other hand is charming, cheerful and friendly, devoted to his mum, and well-liked by everyone who knows him. Spot the killer yet? The subtext is that old cliche that we can’t judge books by their covers and that Blaney and Rusk can be seen as each other’s twin as it were. As the two pals who are as different from each other as night is from day, Finch and Foster are very credible though one has the impression that the bad boy with a heart of gold and the good boy with a hidden and horrifying secret were not difficult stereotypes for them to play.

Oxford as a main character comes late in the movie and his appeal comes mainly from his intelligence and conciliatory nature, and his droll relationship with his wife (Vivien Merchant) who is learning high-class French cuisine and insists on feeding hubby her often inedible and tasteless results. The dinner-table moments provide ample opportunities for macabre slapstick humour as Oxford and the missus discuss aspects of the murder case – in one scene Oxford describes how the Necktie Murderer broke a victim’s fingers while his wife snaps breadsticks, as if in imitation – though after a couple of scenes like this, the humour becomes stale and something else that’s funny is needed. The most hilarious section in “Frenzy” involves Rusk, having dumped a victim in a potato truck, trying to salvage his necktie pin and having to hide among the sacks when the truck starts travelling to a depot; with the victim’s whole body stiff from rigor mortis, he gets kicked in the face constantly by her foot.

The film is peppered with various witty remarks, visual jokes and other utterances and scenes that have double or opposite meanings in the movie’s context: initially amusing, they can become a tired cliche in themselves as the movie progresses. One of the funniest jokes is the appearance of Vladimir Tretchikoff’s famous painting “The Chinese Girl” hanging in Rusk’s apartment: the painting in itself is merely kitsch but appearing in a serial killer’s abode, well, the girl’s green skin can only mean one thing … the guy likes his girls dead!

The support cast hold their side up well and if anything are more important as a group than the three lead actors, as they flesh out lead character Blaney’s background and character and make plausible the possibility of his being the serial killer so their acting and their character details, however minor, are crucial. Brenda’s secretary (Jean Marsh) not only looks like a narrow-minded, holier-than-thou puritan, she is one in the way she speaks to Oxford about Rusk pestering her boss. The fact that Brenda, despite being divorced and employing a spinster stereotype as her assistant, runs a dating agency that might attract sleazy types is a droll detail but is important nevertheless: it brings the serial killer to her.

As expected, the camerawork is impeccable and a significant actor in its own right, panning away from Rusk as he takes Babs to his apartment and floating down the stairs (staircases are major fixtures in Hitchcock films) and out into the streets like a lonely waif while he does what he has to do. Much later as Blaney goes up the stairs seeking revenge, the camera tracks him closely and eagerly, following his hand as it slides up the support rail, emphasising the two men as polar yet complementary opposites. The whole film looks colourful in the way that Hitchcock’s films for Hollywood in the 1950s were vividly coloured. Even the musical soundtrack for “Frenzy” sounds 1950s with its smooth orchestral backing and quite melodramatic tunes and is perhaps the most dated aspect of the film.

Food is a major motif in “Frenzy” but it’s a pity Hitchcock doesn’t connect it very closely to consumption, sex and death. The rapist “consumes” his victims and tosses them out like so much trash: this could have been connected to Rusk’s work as a vegetable seller in some way. Images of abandoned vegetables and fruit that look rotten outside but are still fresh inside could have been used to reinforce the film’s message about how superficial knowledge of a person and circumstantial evidence can be used and manipulated into condemning innocent people who may be alienated from society in some way. Food could also have been used to illustrate and explore Rusk’s relationship with his mother, and give audiences some insight into how he became a violent misogynist.

Not a bad film for a director in the twilight of his career but for some viewers it’ll be hard to shake off the impression that in “Frenzy”, Hitchcock is simply re-running his favourite ideas and not milking them for new insights into people’s motivations and behaviour.

The Draughtman’s Contract: perhaps too multi-layered but enjoyable all the same

Peter Greenaway, “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (1982)
 
British director Peter Greenaway’s first full-length feature film is a lovely feast for the eyes and ears, and the rest of the brain for that matter as it works on several levels: as an English country-house murder mystery, a subversion of social and political conventions and issues of the period in which it is set (the year 1694), a send-up of historical drama and an examination of what we see and assume is real versus the actual reality of what we fail to see. Brisk and business-like in pace with fixed-camera shots in which actors walk or run about often, the film makes maximum advantage of its garden and country settings to emphasise concerns of fertility and inheritance that underlie the intrigues leading up to and beyond the “murder” of the supposed head of the family. The plot is heavily dependent on dialogue which may require viewers to see the film at least two or three times to appreciate the double meanings of what various characters say to one another and to see layers of meaning in many shots and scenes.
 
A draughtsman, Mr Neville (Anthony Higgins) is commissioned by a wealthy lady, Mrs Herbert (Janet Suzman), to create 12 drawings of her house and gardens from different angles in 12 days. After persistent entreaty from Mrs Herbert, Mr Neville finally deigns to do so on terms he dictates – terms which include Mrs Herbert granting him sexual favours in secret while her husband is away on business, and the family taking its meals in the open air – and these terms are included in his contract. His work schedule is precise – he does sketches for all 12 drawings on the first day, then on each succeeding day elaborates on them further – and though he has given exacting instructions on what is to be included and to be left out for each scene on which each drawing is based, and he draws and details exactly what he sees, he discovers over time that the scenes change subtly: in one scene, a shirt in a tree changes position; in another, a statue changes position; in yet a third, various underclothes are strewn about. While not drawing, Mr Neville has his way with a reluctant Mrs Herbert regularly and becomes involved in the life of her household, in particular becoming chummy with Mrs Herbert’s daughter Mrs Talman (Anne-Louise Lambert) and arousing the jealousy and ire of her husband Mr Talman (Hugh Fraser). As the days pass the original contract is declared void. Mrs Talman suggests to Mr Neville that her father may have been murdered and offers the artist a contract of her own, and not long after their conversation the father Mr Herbert is found dead in a moat near an equestrian statue on the family property.
 
Mr Neville is a talented and successful but arrogant artist, sharp and crisp when he speaks, and his arrogance becomes his downfall as he appropriates Mr Herbert’s role as head of the household, only to be manipulated by Mrs Talman to service her sexual needs and being later disposed of by her jealous husband and his friends. Mrs Herbert initially appears fearful and downtrodden, and viewers might feel a bit sorry for her for allowing herself to be abused, but her victim status helps to lure Mr Neville into a scheme that ensures the Herberts’ property and wealth stay with Mrs Herbert and Mrs Talman’s descendants. Mr Neville believes his drawings reflect exactly what he sees and is mystified when Mr Talman sees evidence of sexual impropriety with his wife in the various works or when others examine them for clues to Mr Herbert’s murder and who may have killed him. The artist’s business-like approach to his work and everything he does – even his trysts with Mrs Herbert are conducted as cold-blooded business transactions (which they are so just who is the prostitute here?) – blinds him to hints within the drawings and the landscapes they depict of emotions and enmities that will bring him down.
 
The scheming that goes on in the Herbert household comments on the social relations of the period: Mr Neville, the son of a tenant farmer, tries to undermine the social hierarchy of his time in his own way, only for the aristocrats to put him in his place (an incommunicado one) and conveniently blame him for the murder of Mr Herbert; and the Herberts’ manipulations of Mr Neville imply that theirs is a corrupt class intent on using people for its own self-serving and materialist ends while preserving the appearance of innocence and propriety, symbolised by the white clothes and wigs of the Herberts and their household.
 
The actors are great to watch: their acting appears natural (apart from some scenes where actors may strike poses) in contrast to the hugely exaggerated costumes, wigs and make-up they often wear, and they are good-looking almost to the point of blandness: Lambert has a delicate, ethereal beauty that belies her character’s calculating nature and Higgins looks so po-faced that the barest emotion might crack his forehead. The diction is precise with a cut-glass edge: a necessary requirement as the dialogue includes complete sentences laden with puns, double meanings and references to classical Greek mythology which themselves have double meanings in the context of the film. Visual puns abound: naked male statues change positions, the equestrian statue sometimes loses its rider and the landscapes and buildings often look too perfectly picturesque and manicured. I suspect the English in the pre-industrial 1690’s were not greatly concerned with being punctual, neat and exact in their work. The water in the moat, still and lime-green, betrays no broken lines that might suggest something has fallen into it. Even the weather is unusually balmy and sunny.
 
Mention should be made of Michael Nyman’s musical score which is based on repeated motifs (what might be called riffs in some genres of rock and other popular music) by the 17th century English composer Henry Purcell; performed by various musicians who included Alexander Balanescu (later to form the experimental chamber music group The Balanescu Quartet in 1987), the music can be very intrusive, appearing when least expected and not complementing anything happening at the time, and has an odd shrill reedy sound sometimes but its artificial and theatrical style suits the film.
 
The camerawork includes lovely idyllic country and garden scenes that could be tableaux with hidden secrets, layered with meanings that change over the course of the film; unfortunately the camera doesn’t linger long over such scenes but its abruptness is in keeping with the cracking pace that Mr Neville sets for himself at work and for everyone around him. The way in which scenes are filmed not only draws viewers’ attention to the lush vegetation, it also distances the characters from viewers and underlines their connections with their environment, emphasising again the Herberts’ attachment – nay, obsession – to their lands and the wealth represented in them.
 
Funny how even in such a painterly film as “The Draughtsman’s Contract”, money manages to rear its ugly head: this is appropriate as in 1694 England was well on the way to becoming the centre of an empire that had its origins in trade and the quest for wealth. The whiff of enterprise and commerce exists throughout the film, in the way Mr Neville whips everyone into action as soon as the ink on his contract dries, laying down the law as to how the Herberts and their retinue must comply with his requirements, and how he attempts to usurp the “natural” order in the ladies’ household. People appear oh-so-refined and cultured but the things they really value are money and property (which itself generates more money). With so many contrasts, contradictions and the many pairings of opposites, this film is dripping – maybe too much so – with meaning but it’s an enjoyable intellectual romp all the same. What we see is what we necessarily don’t get (or grasp) and the murder – if indeed, a murder did occur – is never solved.
 
(This film is available as part of a 3-DVD set that includes “Orlando” by Sally Potter and “The Shooting Party” by Alan Bridges from Umbrella Entertainment at www.umbrellaent.com.au.)

The Shooting Party: stodgy, genteel film detailing decay of British nobility

Alan Bridges, “The Shooting Party” (1985)

Mainly notable for being the last movie to feature James Mason before his death in 1984, this film about a group of British aristocrats gathering at a country mansion is a study in microcosm of the downfall of the British upper class and its values, and how their culture might have decayed over time. The film is set in the autumn of 1913, the last year before the outbreak of the Great War (World War 1) that engulfed much of Europe and destroyed monarchies in Germany and Russia.

A rich landowner, Sir Randolph Nettleby (Mason), invites several friends and their wives to his home to shoot grouse over a weekend. Other pastimes the host family and its guests enjoy include horse-riding, dancing, discussions, playing card games, going for walks through scenic country which includes a large pond for ducks and a fancy dress party. For much of the film, the audience is treated to investigations of the various foibles of Nettleby’s wealthy guests and his servants in a manner similar to Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” which also featured members of the British upper class gathering at an aristocrat’s home. Nettleby’s guests include Lord Gilbert Hartlip and his wife (Edward Fox and Cheryl Campbell) who more or less conduct an open marriage, as long as their liaisons remain secret: Lady Hartlip carries on an affair with a businessman (Aharon Ipale) who pays her gambling losses. Hartlip is jealous of another guest, barrister Lionel Stephens (Rupert Frazer), for his shooting skills; Stephens himself is besotted with yet another guest, Lady Olivia Lilburn (Judi Bowker) who is married to Lord Lilburn (Robert Hardy).

The film’s focus is mainly on Nettleby and his party of guests but covers, superficially at least, the life of the local rural working-men hired to drive the grouse towards the aristocrats, in particular Tom Harker (Gordon Jackson) who is also a poacher. Harker declares his support for the British politician David Lloyd George, a liberal-minded leader who initiated reforms that led to the development of the welfare state in the UK; he also happens to be friendly with Nettleby who sees him as having the simple country life he dreams of for himself. An outsider, Cornelius Cardew (John Gielgud), intrudes into the life of these men which revolves around the pub, waving slogans and pamphlets advocating animal rights and decrying blood sports and hunting. The upper and lower classes usually keep to themselves – a scene in which they have a break after a shooting session illustrates the social separation well: the aristocrats retire to a marquee for tea and champagne while Nettleby’s tenants gather around a table in the open air for beer – until a tragic hunting accident brings everybody together.

As the characters represent types, they bear most of the film’s investigation into the values and behaviour of the British aristocracy and so the movie appears plotless and lacking in direction, shifting from one set of characters and their interactions to another set. The pace is steady with the focus on people’s dialogue and there’s very little action until near the end. The symbolism can be over-obvious and clumsy – it doesn’t seem likely that a group of upper class men smoking cigars after dinner would be talking about the descent of Western civilisation and of their class at a time when British power was at its peak and controlled half the planet – and limits character development, no matter how well individual actors play their roles. Nettleby as portrayed by Mason is a warm if world-weary gentleman, dignified and gracious, troubled about the legacy he and his kind might be leaving to his country. Nettleby presides over his world as a benevolent but firm patriarch; his meeting with Cardew who disrupts a shooting session appears self-deprecatory and humorous but is actually a subtle put-down that asserts the aristocracy’s right of control over the birds and other animals that dwell on his properties. Cardew either takes the hint or allows himself to be led into a conversation about his pamphlets and the men soon part on good terms.

Nettleby represents a generation of leaders who made the British Empire what it was in 1913 but is concerned that the next generation of aristocrats, represented by the Hartlips, is self-indulgent and hedonistic now that the nobility has given up its role of ruling the country. The Hartlips represent the impotence of the new generation of upper class people: Lord Hartlip is obsessed about his shooting skills and his wife is addicted to gambling; her dependence on her lover for money in exchange for sex demonstrates the aristocracy’s dependence on self-made wealthy men to survive. (Lady Hartlip’s addiction might hint at the emptiness of her life as an aristocrat’s wife, forbidden by convention to do any meaningful work.) The implication is the Hartlips and their generation will sell themselves into a bondage they don’t understand to maintain their reputations. The secret liaison between Stephens and Lady Lilburn shows both the contrast and complementarity between the new world of commerce, brash and competitive, as represented by Stephens, and a more socially conscientious, well-meaning layer of the upper class, represented by Lady Lilburn. The lady rebuffs the barrister in spite of her attraction to him. Lady Lilburn’s husband appears typical of many upper class people in lacking the imagination, creativity and enterprise his class needs to survive in the new world to come.

The Hartlips’ obsession to keep up appearances and past (but fading) reputations and Stephens’s own competitve behaviour to please Lady Lilburn collide in a shooting incident in which Lord Hartlip, goaded by his wife, breaks an unspoken gentleman’s code by firing his rifle after the shooting session is declared finished. He ends up wounding Harker. Harker’s death represents the fate of soldiers from across the British Empire who were to die in the killing fields of Verdun and elsewhere during the War. Mason as Nettleby, watching over Harker, delivers a moving performance as he prays with the dying man  and sees this icon of simple country life slip away. Surely at this moment Nettleby realises the real incompetence and powerlessness of his class; he has had control over Harker’s life as the poacher’s landlord but cannot control the manner and moment of Harker’s death. Hartlip, standing by, is paralysed by the consequences of his senseless action and can only offer financial compensation – putting himself into his cuckold’s pockets.

The film overall is stodgy due to the burdensome symbolism, the earnest tone, the slow pace and apparent lack of purpose but there are some fine acting performances from Mason, Bowker, Fox, Jackson and Gielgud in very restricted roles. A small subplot in which Nettleby’s grandson is always looking for his lost pet duck with the help of a maid provides amusement and lightens the movie’s serious tone but even this diversion has its dark side as there’s the possibility that the duck might get shot. The movie is worth watching twice at least: the first time to see the entire story and the second time to absorb important details about the various characters, minor as well as major ones, and what these details tell us about the British aristocracy and its customs in the early 20th century. “The Shooting Party” is very genteel and oblique in its approach, and this isn’t likely to appeal to a wide audience who perhaps need to learn the film’s lesson about upper class arrogance and incompetence.

(This film is available as part of a 3-DVD set that includes “Orlando” by Sally Potter and “The Draughtsman’s Contract” by Peter Greenaway from Umbrella Entertainment at www.umbrellaent.com.au.)