Rubber Johnny: small dense film in which a universe of transformation and realised ambitions is contained

Chris Cunningham, “Rubber Johnny” (2005)

Started small as a commercial based on the idea of a raver’s body morphing into different shapes as he dances, then changing into a music video clip and for all I know this concept may still be growing: as it is, “Rubber Johnny” is a surprise packet that packs a lot of meaning into its short time, be it just under four minutes (in the short version) or striking six minutes (long version). The concept will resonate very strongly with all the misfits out yonder – you know who you are – who harbour secret talents and way-out abilities invisible to all but their close pet animals. A teenage boy, born terribly deformed and crippled, barely able to speak and shunned by his family, is made to live in a dark basement with only a chihuahua for company. A psychologist talks down to him and tries to calm him when he gets frustrated and becomes violent. Left alone, the youngster springs to life in another dimension, breaking and dancing in his wheelchair and using it as a launch-pad to fly off into inner space where as Master of his own Universe he fends off lightning beams travelling at the speed of … well, light. The chihuahua watches silently, taking in everything and knowing not to breathe a word out to anyone as he’ll simply be disbelieved.

Shot on a home camera with infra-red photography and using rapid editing, the film has a very dank and grungy look which appears very realistic and has fooled some people into thinking an actual crippled boy really was filmed. Certainly the introductory scene with the psychologist, blurry at first and then blacked out for the most part when the boy lashes out, appears close to realism. Shots of the fluorescent light tube lend further realism and establish the small-scale garage-like nature of the boy’s confines.

After the opening credits, the film proper, set to original music by the English electronic act Aphex Twin (the music itself is remixes of two tracks from his 2001 album “drukQs” and is energetic and rhythmic if minimal and hard on the ears), starts and zooms off into another reality. An interruption halfway through the film by the boy’s father conveniently breaks the film into two distinct halves: if the first half is merely electrifying with the boy contorting his body and spinning his wheelchair, the second half is sheer mindfuck with the boy using the camera as his unwilling dance partner, crashing repeatedly into the glass, leaving bits of flesh and fluid behind and in the process changing his body into one shape after another like bouncing plasticine.

The latter half of the film could be interpreted more pessimistically: the boy, in slamming himself against the camera repeatedly, is trying to annihilate himself and blend in with his darkness after being told off by his father in the intermission. Whether he’s acting violently and trying to obliterate himself or is just reacting to the cocaine he’s snorted and working off the energy and stimulation, the result is the same: the boy is attempting some kind of self-transformation in which mind and body dissolve and become one with the greater universe – or void. Another possibility is that the boy becomes aware he is being watched and tries to break through the glass (and the “fourth wall”) to force viewers to enter into his world fully rather than watch him as though he were a zoo exhibit.

The only complaint I have is the end credits come all too quickly and the fate of the boy remains uncertain as the family decides to shove him into an institution. It’s hard not to feel pity for the boy as he gets pushed from one hell-hole to another. The concept behind “Rubber Johnny” is worth expanding into a longer film, perhaps to no more than 60 – 70 minutes maximum; any longer and the film would have to be built around a definite story-based narrative that would include the character’s origins which would rob the film of its energy, mystery and suspense. The film is definitely worth repeat watching at least until Cunningham brings out his first full-length feature film which at this time of writing is a question of when, not if.

Night of the Hell Hamsters / Eel Girl: two efficient comedy horror film shorts

Paul Campion, “Night of the Hell Hamsters” (2005), “Eel Girl” (2008)

Film shorts are a flexible medium for telling particular kinds of stories or expressing ideas in ways not possible in full-length feature films, usually due to budget limitations or the idea not being substantial enough to sustain over 40 minutes of viewing time. The two shorts under review are respectively the first and second directorial features for British / New Zealand director Paul Campion who came to film-directing somewhat late in his life after a career of illustrating book covers and doing texture painting on films.

“Night of the Hell Hamsters” is an affectionate parody of and tribute to B-grade supernatural horror films that are usually aimed at a teenage audience. Julie (Stephanie Ratcliff) is babysitting for her neighbours on a dark and stormy night when her boyfriend Karl (Paul O’Neill) drops by with a Ouija board game. While playing with it at Julie’s insistence, the two accidentally summon up a demon from hell which for strange reasons of its own decides to inhabit the bodies of two pet hamsters. The zombie hamsters torment Julie and Karl with a wickedly twisted sense of humour that subjects the youngsters to laughably crude sexual jokes and, for Julie, misogynist taunting. The girl is forced to adopt vampire-slayer heroics to fight the rodents.

“Eel Girl” combines comedy, science fiction and horror in half the time Julie and the hamsters sort out their differences. A military officer drops in on two scientists at a naval science laboratory with an order to take one of them away for briefing. The man protests, saying that protocol requires at least two people to be working together in the same laboratory at any one time, but the guard subtly threatens him and the two leave together. The second scientist (Euan Dempsey) immediately switches his focus to a pet vanity project, perhaps secretly approved by his superiors, which is studying a female hybrid eel-human (Julia Rose). Behind a safety barrier, the creature signals interest in the scientist and the man, excited and nervous, throws caution aside to open the security door to touch and maybe kiss the girl.

The first film is straightforward story-telling with jokes, clichés and some errors in continuity and logic which may be either deliberate or accidental. There’s no indication that the hamsters attack the sleeping children being babysat. The two actors playing Julie and Karl carry the entire film capably which is as well as the tension dissipates quickly after the hamsters turn demonic and the only thing of interest to viewers is to see how Julie atones for her innocent mistake in summoning the demon. On the whole, the film is well-made as it should be but, by itself, it says little about the director’s talent and ambition.

“Eel Girl” is a more serious proposition, more elegant and efficient in style, that builds up and sustains the suspense right up to the moment when the hybrid performs her own version of oral sex. Dialogue is completely non-existent after the officer leads away one scientist and the remaining characters communicate their feelings through their body language alone. Close-ups of the second scientist’s face and his behaviour (licking his lips, fiddling with his clothes, clenching his fists) and the quick editing involved reveal his anxiety and maintain the growing tension. There may be some very interesting ideas hinted at in this short: defence scientists using taxpayer money to engage in ethically dubious activities winked at by senior brass;  men’s attempts to control nature and women for selfish purposes; and humanity’s presumption in manipulating and splicing DNA material from different species to achieve a certain result, only to get something completely unexpected that threatens to become a disaster. The very limited setting – a darkened, cramped room and a dirty grey-green chamber dominated by a tub filled to the brim with thick black gunk provide the scene – helps to give the film a sinister atmosphere that enhances the tension.

Rose’s make-up which covers her whole body (she appears nude) makes her look cold and alien, and the actor herself moves in a slow, steady and studied way as though to suggest her monster is studying the scientist as he studies her. The film’s make-up budget obviously didn’t extend to cutting all of Rose’s hair off so that she could look more eel-like and maybe even a bit obscene with a shiny bald head but that’s a cosmetic detail that probably wouldn’t have made much difference to the overall plot build-up. The special effects used in the film’s climax don’t look completely realistic – viewers can easily see computer enhancement has been used – and I would have liked to see the monster’s second set of jaws in her throat working themselves forward as she opens her mouth. (I’m assuming the eel that inspired the film short was a moray eel.) The climax would have looked a lot more natural and gruesome.

For a five-minute film, “Eel Girl” is a punchy effort that packs in good acting, sustained tension, black comedy and a dark atmosphere. For once the lack of a back-story to the monster and how the naval laboratory acquired her invites viewer speculation about what the film could be saying in the way of a theme. There may be no theme at all and viewers can read whatever they wish into the film. It’s a huge improvement on “Night of the Hell Hamsters” and if Campion can build on this achievement – at this time of writing, he was working on a full-length movie and had a few other movie projects on the boil – he’ll go a long way indeed: upward that is, not downward as that foolish second scientist did.

 

 

 

The Third Man: excellent character study of people coping with a changed world where old certainties are subverted

Carol Reed, “The Third Man” (1949)

Here’s an excellent movie character study about the testing of loyalties and trust in a world that’s just come out of a long war where such notions as brotherhood, friendship, doing what you believe is right and the ethical concerns that might arise from personal action are subverted and corrupted, and people end up living and surviving for selfish reasons alone. An unemployed American writer, down on his luck and burnt-out from writing too many trite Western horse-opera stories, comes to Vienna at the invitation of a friend just after the end of World War II. Already the city has been partitioned into four zones by the victorious Allied powers which are now squabbling among themselves. The writer, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), goes to meet his friend at his apartment only to be told by the porter (Peter Horbiger) that he has just seen the friend, Harry Lime, die in a road accident. Martins attends Lime’s funeral where he meets two British Army police officers Sergeant Paine (Bernard Lee) and Major Calloway (Trevor Howard). The writer is contacted by Lime’s friends who had picked him up after the road accident. As time goes by, Martins is struck by the differences in the stories the porter and Lime’s friends and doctor tell him about Lime’s accident – in particular, the discrepancy between the number of men who attended Lime at the accident scene – and determines to find out how Lime really died and if his death had been an accident.

While investigating Lime’s disappearance, Martins meets an actress, Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), whom Lime had helped escape from Czechoslovakia with forged papers, and develops feelings for her. He learns from Calloway about Lime’s trafficking of diluted penicillin on the black market and how this has created a public health catastrophe for Viennese children. Martins decides to leave Vienna but then catches a glimpse of Lime (Orson Welles) who has been living in Vienna’s underground sewer network. Martins reports Lime’s exstence to Calloway who then orders the man’s grave to be exhumed; the men discover another body in Lime’s coffin. Russian police officers come for Anna to take her back to Czechoslovakia and Martins tries to negotiate safe passage for her in return for helping Calloway catch Lime.

The plot is fairly straightforward though second and viewings may be necessary to understand all its details. There are no hackneyed twists to manipulate suspense and tension into a rollercoaster ride and the dilemma that Martins faces in doing what is right and ethical at the cost of betraying a friend and losing a loved person supplies the bulk of the tension in the film’s second half. All the action and thrills occur in the prolonged (maybe too prolonged) chase scene in the city’s sewer system. Joseph Cotten deftly underplays the would-be hero who hardly understands what he gets himself into and is out of his depth coping with life in Vienna; he achieves a good if difficult balance of making Martins look capable when he isn’t without making the character look too bumbling. Viewers see how Martins came to be in the situation that he finds himself at the beginning of the film: he can only write trashy fiction because he lacks self-knowledge and understanding of human psychology, and is basically superficial and ignorant.The baby-faced Welles plays his dubious Harry Lime role very well indeed: initially he seems callous in his dismissal of the children’s deaths caused by his black market activities in his “cuckoo clock” speech that compares the cultures and histories of Italy and Switzerland but one might consider his motives which may be selfish, altruistic or both in stealing a wonder medicine from military hospitals and selling it to hospitals desperately needing it to treat children, and in assisting Anna and maybe others like her flee Communist rule. He delivers the film’s best acting performance in his lone scene where he is trapped on a staircase; weakened by a gunshot wound, the strain showing on his face, he makes desperate efforts to escape the police and Martins homing in on him. Valli plays the basically passive Anna subtly and gives the impression of a complex woman who has moral depth but can also be naive about human nature. Mention also should be made of Howard as Calloway: he plays his part straight but turns out to be as much a master manipulator of Martins as Lime himself.

Taking Martins’s point of view, the cinematography by Robert Krasker emphasises many shots taken at crazy angles to reflect the man’s bewilderment and failure to connect with and appreciate the world he has just flown into. Vienna itself becomes a significant character with otherwise purely historic and harmless buildings made to look sinister and menacing due to camera placements and streets at night denuded of traffic and pedestrians so as to resemble an American Wild West ghost-town of Martins’s imaginings, where stand-offs and shoot-outs could occur. Some scenes are filmed at a considerable distance to emphasise some aspect of the plot or the relationship between characters: the film’s closing scene in which Anna walks past Martins contemptuously is filmed at a distance from them both to show Martins’s alienation in a world he has failed to understand and which now rejects him.

The musical soundtrack by Anton Karras, composed almost entirely on zither, has a Western flavour that comments ironically on the film’s setting in post-WW2 Vienna, on the edge between the capitalist West and the Communist East, a place of promise and opportunity but also a hive of vice and corruption, just as towns springing up across the American West in the 1800s as a result of mining and farming booms could either be successful cities or abandoned ghost-towns. The sharp, vigorous melodies don’t behave as a musical soundtrack should do, accentuating tension where needed and bringing it down: instead, the music can be abrupt and intrusive to the point of being annoying. The purpose is to encourage viewers to “see” the events as Martins might be seeing them through a familiar mental framework that allows him to participate in them. The possibility that he might end up wrecking his life and the lives of others doesn’t occur to him.

By film’s end though viewers have no sense that Martins has really learned anything from his experience: he appears to want to resume a relationship with Anna and seems genuinely puzzled when she ignores him. The reasons she rejects him are many and could include resentment at being used as bait or anger that someone she loved, however flawed he was, is gone. Although the film is very much of its time and deals with issues springing from a particular historical event, its enquiry into misplaced loyalties and betrayal, and how people cope with changed circumstances in which good becomes bad and bad becomes good, remains relevant to modern audiences in a world where the political and economic order established by the United States in the immediate aftermath of World War II has been breaking down for a long time and might now be in its death throes.

Repulsion: slow but very good psychological horror character study of sexual attraction / repression

Roman Polanski, “Repulsion” (1965)

A good psychological character study of a young woman suffering mental illness and falling apart while alone and isolated in her sister’s apartment, “Repulsion” was the English-language debut for both director Roman Polanski (his second full-length directing feature) and lead actor Catherine Deneuve who was 22 years old at the time she made the movie. The plot is a basic one that just manages to sustain the 105-minute running time though there are a fair few passages in the film that could have been edited for length. In much of the latter half of the film there is not much dialogue and Deneuve herself utters no words as her character gradually loses the power of speech.

Carole Ledoux (Deneuve) is a recent migrant working as a manicurist in a beauty salon in London and lives with her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) in a busy part of London in the 1960’s. Their life is precarious: they are always behind with the rent payments and Helen is having an affair with a married man Michael (Ian Hendry). Michael moves into the apartment, much to Carole’s disgust. She has an aversion to men and there are hints throughout the film that she is both repelled by and attracted to men in ways she can’t understand or control; on top of that, men themselves are attracted to her because of her beauty and blonde hair and misinterpret her timidity and whispery voice as provocative come-ons. Michael and Helen go on a holiday to Italy, leaving Carole to fend for herself in the apartment. Losing her job at the salon, Carole is cut off from the world around her in the apartment: her social and physical isolation combine with her sexual fantasies, feelings, traumas and paranoias to bring 0n a full-blown mental breakdown which has catastrophic consequences when two men, a would-be boyfriend (John Fraser) and the landlord (Patrick Wymark), enter the apartment on separate occasions to confront her.

Deneuve does a great job carrying the film as the fragile Carole. Initially she is shy and dreamy and viewers see her discomfort in a world that has no time for dreamers and dawdlers. Indications of her disintegrating mental state come early with nail-biting, scratching, chewing her hair and repetitive actions suggestive of wiping or cleaning herself. The camera often focusses closely on Deneuve’s flawlessly sculpted face with its frequently blank expression and wide-open vacant stare. Something of British director Alfred Hitchcock’s influence might be seen in the opening and closing scenes of the film with the camera lingering and then respectively zooming out of or into Carole’s eye. There may be a mix of under-acting and 0ver-acting on Deneuve’s part throughout the movie but most of the time she has a blank look that does not over-strain for effect. Carole’s actions throughout the film are filled with horrific portent (and are sometimes blackly humorous with sexual suggestion as in a scene in which a co-worker at the salon sees a rabbit’s head sticking out of Carole’s hand-bag) but seem credible. One can almost believe Carole is capable of murder in her increasingly addled state. The support cast is very good if deliberately one-dimensional to emphasise the lack of empathy and the single-minded pursuit of pleasure and material goals among the people Carole lives and works with.

With most of the action taking place in Helen’s apartment, background details are important and as Carole descends into madness the apartment’s dimensions change from cosy and cramped to wide with cracked walls and floors. The cracks that suddenly rip across the walls have much blunt sexual symbolism as do the hands that reach out from the walls in the hall-way. Indeed the apartment’s floor-plan suggests the interior of the female reproductive system with rooms leading off from the hall-way which itself ends in the bathroom. Needless to say the bathroom ends up in a very sorry  state of mixed fluids.

The film can be slow in its early stages, setting up the social context in which Carole lives and works and building her character and the various social interactions between herself and others, and among the various characters. Women express disgust with men and their sexual aggressions and behaviours, men talk about women as if they are animals to be broken in and controlled roughly. With all this talk going on around Carole, it’s no wonder she decides to retreat from the outside world into her own world once Helen goes away. The problem though is that Carole’s inner world is filled with more horror than the outside world is: flashback memories or fantasies of rape and control play out over and over in her mind. The repetition can be overdone – we only need to see Carole’s rape fantasies twice perhaps to realise her mind keeps dwelling on them – and it’s not necessary for the camera to pause repeatedly over the rotting rabbit on the plate to indicate Carole’s forgetfulness and mental confusion over household routines. Suspense and tension exist but the film’s slow-ish pace, some over-long scenes and the repetition tend to dissipate the build-up of tension.

The soundtrack is significant in the film: bells, alarms, phone ring-tones and the sound of spoons being clapped by a group of wandering musicians pop up from time to time to remind viewers of real life as opposed to Carole’s “reality” and to measure the extent to which Carole recedes from the outside world.

“Repulsion” is well-named, there are several meanings here: repulsion as in rejecting and / or avoiding sexual urges and impulses, memories and fantasies of rape and assault, and the double standards of sexual behaviour that apply to men and women in 20th-century Western society. A lonely and alienated figure, made so by the consequences of those double standards perhaps, rejects this world for her own traumatised world in which memories and fantasies interact and play out over and over. Plus the more Carole withdraws from life, the more the outside world claws at her; even when she is unconscious, there is a suggestion that Helen’s lover Michael finds her sexually irresistible. This is Carole’s tragedy and the “comedy” of the film, that as much as she tries to resist her desires, fantasies, past traumatic events and men’s attention, she keeps ending up in situations where she can’t avoid them.

 

 

 

 

Witchfinder General: dark and serious low-budget exploration of corruption, abuse and violence

Michael Reeves, “Witchfinder General” (1968)

Loosely based on the exploits of the English 17th-century witch-hunters Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, this movie is a dark low-budget exploration of personal corruption, abuse and violence in a society wracked by civil war and the collapse of political stability and law and order. Hero and villain alike are undone by taking the law into their own hands, no matter how justified the reason may be. In the year 1645 Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) roam eastern England hunting out witches in various villages: their techniques include brutal torture to induce false confessions of men and women accused of witchcraft. They ride toward a place called Brandeston and a trooper come from there, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), who has just visited his fiancee Sara (Hilary Dwyer) and her uncle John Lowes (Rupert Devies) the village priest, shows them the direction. Once there the witch-hunters round up Lowes and others accused of witchcraft, throw them into jail and torture them sadistically. In spite of Sara’s attempts to save her uncle, he and the other accused are executed and Hopkins and Stearne move on.

Marshall returns to Brandeston, learns from Sara what has happened to her uncle and vows to hunt down Hopkins and Stearne. From this moment on the movie becomes a cat-and-mouse game in which Marshall risks his career – and possibly his life – pursuing the witch-hunters who in turn plan to trap Marshall and Sara by accusing them of witchcraft. The double plotting sounds very silly but the serious tone of the movie, the level of credible violence that has occurred by this point in the film and the depth of characterisation make the second part of “Witchfinder General” no laughing matter and indeed quite powerful as viewers are left to wonder how intense and melodramatic the climax will be when Marshall and Hopkins confront each other.

Though made for commercial purposes on a small budget, the film has excellent production values: the cinematography is good with long stationary shots that take in wide swathes of peaceful countryside with historic buildings that give the movie a distinctive English flavour, and the few bright colours of the film which tends towards dark colours and shadows hold up well after over 40 years. The use of long static shots gives the film a staged look which may well be the intention – the Puritan rulers of England from 1649 to 1660 closed down all theatres – though there is one excellent scene in which Stearne stumbles into a forest after taking a bullet in his arm: anticipating his pain, the camera pans away from him to the forest background while he extracts the bullet and screams, then pans back to him. Reinforcing the film’s commercial intent, the music soundtrack is very dramatic, overbearing and old-fashioned in style with melodies straight out of American horse operas: the association with Westerns may be deliberate as here, the government as represented by Marshall and Hopkins are routing out elements hostile to it just as the US government routed out and shoved indigenous Americans into reservations two centuries later.

For a highly melodramatic plot in which screaming is an unfortunate constant, the acting is restrained and well done with notable performances from the male leads. Price is grim and implacable as Hopkins yet commanding, charismatic and not above exploiting Sara when she offers sexual favours or cheating on others including his assistant. Russell is suitably nasty as the vicious  Stearne. Ogilvy acquits himself well in the meaty role of Marshall and his final scene is a surprise shocker. The main characters are delineated in detail so that though they commit unspeakable atrocities, viewers at least understand their motives, however gross they are, and can indentify with them: Hopkins and Stearne are unlikeable but we all know of people who would behave in similar ways in similar contexts.

The film doesn’t attempt to explain witchcraft but instead focusses on the accusations, the use of torture and particular torture methods by witch-hunters and the punishments they carried out. For all that there is a theme of how witch-hunts (figurative as well as literal) can occur in insecure societies and how some individuals can use violence, ignorance and belief in rumour for selfish personal reasons. Torture and violence take a toll on people’s psychology, corrupting and degrading them as a result. Viewers may feel relieved that the movie versions of Hopkins and Stearne are punished for exploiting people but Marshall gives up his humanity and is no better than his enemies. No-one can feel happy about his fall from grace and the hint that the social and political situation in England at the time, stressed by the voice-over narration at the movie’s start, is in part responsible for Hopkins and Stearne being able to flourish and create havoc is strong. In spite of the film’s age – the acting, the film’s style and even some accents can appear old-fashioned to modern audiences – the intended message is as important as ever and is more so in an age of continuous war across western Asia and northern Africa, ongoing global economic crisis that slowly grinds people into poverty and a cowed news media peddling propaganda, scare stories and lies, all of which surely benefit political and economic elites who are careful to hide their motives and interests.

The real-life Matthew Hopkins was much younger than the man who appears in the film and assisted John Stearne who was originally a landowner and farmer. Hopkins died from pneumonia in his late twenties in 1647 though there has been an intriguing rumour that when general opinion in England turned against him, he emigrated to the Plymouth colony in eastern North America and instigated witch-hunting activities that led to the Salem witch trials.

Number 17: confusing comedy caper not a prime example of Hitchcock’s work

Alfred Hitchcock, “Number 17” (1932)

It has many of the ingredients of a typical Hitchcock suspense thriller film but “Number 17” is merely a daft and confusing comedy chase caper that’s part haunted-house movie / part runaway-train movie. The plot is threadbare with the main focus of it already having happened before the film begins (a diamond necklace is stolen and stashed in a vacant house) and the acting is very uneven with one actor over-acting and mugging for the camera and the others clearly under-acting. As it develops, the plot is unclear with puzzling character motivations: why does a gang of professional thieves hide jewels in an empty “safe” house when a hobo (Leon M Lion) can go in and out and the neighbours next door include a police officer and his nosy daughter Rose (Anne Casson)? Even the detective Gilbert Fordyce (John Stuart) on the thieves’ trail, walking into the house in the film’s opening scenes, has found the place quickly enough though how he does so is never explained. Other characters in the film do peculiar things: Nora (Anne Grey), one of the thieves, pretends to be deaf and mute among her collaborators but when alone with detective Doyle (Barry Jones) who turns up among the late-arriving thieves and Rose, speaks to them; and why is the hobo Ben lurking in the house at the start of the film and what’s his reason for nicking the jewels from one of the thieves? But this is a comedy farce in which the safest place to hide stolen jewels becomes a public forum for anyone and everyone who wishes to wander in and join the fun. People get tied up, a fist-fight breaks out and parts of the floor or the bannisters give way. Hmm, not such a safe house after all if every time you take a step or lean on something, you fall to ground floor faster than you can say “spiral staircase” which occupies much of the camera’s attention in the film’s first half.

With the staircase partly demolished by the very people who were supposed to be restricted by it, the thieves move onto hijacking a goods train on its way to Germany over the English Channel. The detectives escape from the house and take over a bus. From then on it’s a race to see who reaches the Channel ferry first, the runaway train or the bus so police can stop the thieves. Only one problem – after the thieves knock out the train crew, they realise they don’t know how to operate its controls or jam the brakes!

The real worth of “Number 17” is to see Hitchcock’s developing style and methods, notably the long opening scene which is completely silent with Fordyce investigating the vacant house after noticing that a window is lit from inside and a person’s silhouette can be seen. The voyeuristic camera follows Fordyce closely and follows his gaze up the spiral staircase to its top where Ben first appears in magnified shadow. The frequent and creative use of shadows to create an atmosphere of tension and menace in the house reek of German Expressionist influences. Quick cuts among scenes during the train journey, flitting from shots of the steam train chewing up the line on its mad dash to the ferry to the crooks climbing over carriages chasing Ben or one another to the bus on its equally mad charge on the roads, generate excitement and a tense build-up to the inevitable crash climax.

As mentioned before the acting is inconsistent: Lion plays up the comic aspects of Ben a lot while the other actors play their characters straight. For a bunch of professional crooks with self-interest in common, the thieves have remarkably clipped upper-class English accents and ways of speaking, and dress well; the detectives do likewise. Much of the confusion in the plot arises from the fact that the goodies and baddies are so much alike in looks and mannerisms, and this mass doubling turns out to be intentional: one of the thieves turns out to be a police infiltrator and the detectives Fordyce and Doyle are using the same name as a cover. The whole caper is revealed to be a parody in deception: people and buildings aren’t what they’re said to be, a bad guy is actually a good guy, and the people you see apart from Nora and Ben are dressed so nattily that they’re hard to accept as thieves or police. There are hilarious scenes as well: the first we see of Rose, she crashes through the ceiling right into Fordyce’s arms; in a slightly later scene, a detective takes a bullet in his wrist while defending Nora and suffers only a flesh wound. Perhaps he momentarily thought he was wearing invisible versions of Wonder Woman’s bullet-deflecting bracelets.

Combined with very poor-quality filmstock, cheap effects and Hitchcock’s own disdain for the whole project – he had wanted to do something else but ironically another director who had wanted to film “Number 17” got the project Hitchcock desired – “Number 17” is a below-average effort and not really worth bothering for the general public. It’s of interest mainly for budding film-makers to see how Hitchcock uses his knowledge of the German Expressionist style and his own bag of technical tricks to create atmosphere and suspense.

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.