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Spies Like Thus

September 6th, 2009 | File Under hitchcock | No comments yet

Three espionage-related titles from The Hitchcock Project: Foreign Correspondent, Torn Curtain, and Topaz.

Foreign Correspondent (1940) stars Joel McCrea, Laraine Day, and George Sanders (better known as Shere Khan). McCrea plays an American journalist dispatched to Britain to cover the final days before World War II inevitably starts in Europe, including a nonprofit peace activist group and the visit of a Dutch diplomat. The diplomat is apparently assassinated, but McCrea knows that the victim was in fact a doppleganger — the real diplomat is being held hostage while his captors try to extract secret terms of an international treaty from him.

The bulk of the movie is MacGuffin fare; the protagonist and his two British companions searching for one kidnapped person or another. What does stand out is the degree of humor — from the more seasoned fellow journalist who spends his time not drinking in bars, to McCrea’s complete inability to retain his hat, to the world’s worst bodyguard, to Sanders’ character’s lack of capital letters in his name. The ending was apparently quite dramatic at the time, involving an over-water plane crash. Plugged in after that is an open plea on the radio from McCrea’s character for America to join in the war effort — it feels very tacked-on, but I’m sure in 1940 it was quite a serious matter.

Day’s character is the stock part for the time period: dutiful daughter of the important man. Sanders is an atypically-helpful Bristish man (atypical considering that McCrea is American). There are some bold choices dramatically, like letting the audience know who the real bad guy is well before the end. There are also some questionable ones, like a car that allegedly disappears “into thin air” during a chase sequence, but could have been found in 30 seconds if anyone had bothered to actually look for it. Plus, like Torn Curtain below, for some reason people in some movies can’t spot close acquaintances and family members sitting ten feet away from them on airplanes. And it wasn’t the smoke.

On the whole, though, especially for the well-integrated humor, well worth watching.

Torn Curtain (1966) with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews is considerably less worth watching. Not that it didn’t have potential. The plot is interesting enough; Newman plays a US scientist who defects to East Germany to work on anti-missile defense systems for the Communists after the US government cancels his own research into the same technology. Except that that’s not actually what he’s doing; in reality he’s faked the defection to see if the German program hides the solution to his own roadblock. What makes the plot interesting is that Newman’s character has enlisted zero help from the CIA or anyone else for this venture; he’s just thought it up himself and gone for it, counting on East German sympathizers to help him back out once he’s learned what he wants to know.

Where Torn Curtain falters is in execution — the script (especially in the first half) has no flow and provides no insight into the characters — it’s more like a procedural; the soundtrack is light and peppy, which is totally at odds with the alleged suspense of the plot; and I hate to say it but the effects don’t work. Matte paintings, rear-projection screens, and sets that look as much like outdoor Berlin as the inside of a Taco Bell. The problems (according to DVD documentary sources) plagued the entire production, with numerous rewrites and disagreements … at one point, there was even serious talk of Julie Andrews having a musical number.

On the plus side, though, the last act picks up the pace considerably; Newman and Andrews manage to have a pretty good escape sequence, including the only time in film history when a bus ride provides any dramatic tension (yes, yes — I have seen Speed, and yes, that is a commentary on what I thought of Speed). An interesting DVD feature is the ability to watch most of the movie with the original Bernard Hermann score instead of the replacement ordered by Hitchcock after he and Hermann had a falling out. Hermann’s is the better; it hits moments on screen that make you wonder early on about the allegiances of the characters, and actually feels like a drama the entire way through. I don’t know what Hitchcock was thinking asking for it to be pepped up.

Topaz (1969) concerns US and French secret agents trying to uncover a ring of high-level double agents that has been feeding secrets to Cuba. In my opinion, it’s excellent; it got unfairly slammed at the box office when it came out, but if you look at why, it’s hard to sympathize. It has no big name stars, no hidden identities, and no chase sequences. It has dialogue. Entire scenes where the only way you can follow what is going on is by listening. Hard to believe, but that is enough to turn off most movie audiences (now and in 1969).

But it’s filled with interesting devices, such as a nearly silent scene where the daughter of a defector escapes a tail while browsing in a porcelain museum, two sequences where the French agent enlists local help to talk his way past Cuban security, and you have to observe the action without the benefit of hearing the dialog because it is behind glass, and one of the few times in movie history where a cartoonist saves the day (the only other one I can think of is Zodiac).

So yeah, Topaz isn’t a “suspense” film like Notorious or Dial M For Murder. Hitch deserves some credit for trying something different, and more for actually pulling it off. The production this most reminded me of is John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, because it is also about uncovering a double agent, but at a deeper level, too. Both films emphasize what espionage is really like — lying about who you are and what you do, tricking people into giving up information they want to keep secret, and never knowing which of the people around you you can trust. It doesn’t look like fun, does it? Jumping out of planes, racing speeding cars along the Riviera, scaling down the walls of hotels — that looks like fun … which is probably why the James Bond movies made a lot of money. And why they’re all individually forgettable.

Topaz isn’t as good as Tinker Tailor Solider Spy, but the latter is a seven-part miniseries, and it digs in deep to some real issues about giving up a little information to gain a little more information — and how the intelligence business is ultimately an untrustworthy house of cards because both sides are always willing to do just that. Topaz settles for less far-reaching fare, but it delivers a solid dose of intrigue and open questions in its own right. I’d recommend both, but within the Hitchcock canon, Topaz is definitely in the yes pile.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily

July 12th, 2009 | File Under hitchcock | No comments yet

I’m way overdue to post about the Hitchcock endeavor, but some progress has been made. Here’s what I’ve added so far: The Lady Vanishes, Saboteur, Lifeboat, and The Trouble With Harry. I know; that’s not very many. The problem is, I got distracted by watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents through Netflix’s Watch Instantly. There are 39 episodes per season; so far I’ve seen almost two complete seasons. It’s entertaining just for the intro/outros from Hitchcock.

But on with the show. I’m at least going to record capsule reviews. First up: Lifeboat (1943), starring some people you’ve never heard of and Hume Cronyn. The plot: the first few days of a random assortment of torpedoed survivors adrift in a lifeboat in the north Atlantic. Really good; if Film Critics hadn’t spent so much time talking about it, I might not even have noticed that the entire thing was set on a lifeboat, which is a “technical feat” that evidently impresses industry folk. Interesting that it was made during World War II; most of the time a war has to end before it’s reasonable subject material. That said, I do find some of the stock-character-types amusing. For one thing, the German is a true dyed-in-the-wool Nazi superiority believer, not merely a military man doing his service. Of course, that makes for better conflict. I did find the clashes between several of the American characters odd, since they were so split along “class” lines — rich industrialist, poor working stiff, poor simple farm lad, rich reporter. Wait; where did anybody ever get the idea that reporters are rich? Anyway, the film does have some really striking moments, including the first time everybody in the boat wakes up and they re-do the headcount.

Next, The Lady Vanishes (1938); also mid-WWII (at least for the Brits). A surprisingly long set-up at a hotel, followed by the actual plot on board the train. The premise of the story was also explored in an episode of ‘Presents, and perhaps more disturbingly. Nevertheless, the confinement to the train and the utter surreality of the predicament of everyone around you telling you you’re crazy makes for a good tale. If you’re the slightest bit paranoid, you’ll relate well. I do think it’s weird that during the course of the story, you see up close that several of the other train passengers are *not* part of any conspiracy to treat the heroine like she’s imagining things, but they do so anyway for their own reasons. Like a lot of really old Hitchcock movies, I wish it didn’t have to have such a neatly wrapped up happy ending, but the explanation of why the old lady disappears (and how) is at least interesting. I recommend watching it, then watching the ‘Presents episode, which is entitled “Into Thin Air.”

The Trouble With Harry (1955) is called a dark comedy, although it is really not dark in tone; it just involves a dead body — so unless you consider Weekend At Bernie’s “dark comedy” we need to concoct a new term. It’s actually very light, almost too light for me. I think certain kinds of comedy don’t age well — verbal humor does, visual humor sometimes does, sitcom humor does not. For instance, I have seen a couple of episodes of I Love Lucy, and wasn’t tempted to laugh even once. The Trouble With Harry is a lot closer to being funny, but months after watching it what I remember most is the dramatic stuff; along the way we learn more and more about the departed “stranger” Harry, which continually changes what we think of the living characters. It’s an interesting device, and an interesting way to tell a story. It’s just not a laugh riot.

Finally, Saboteur (1942) is a “chase” movie, much in the vein of North By Northwest or a modern “edge of your seat” thriller. But it’s not a bad one, despite the lack of explosions. What really sticks out to me is that Hitchcock knew how to get his protagonist in and out of really tight situations without resorting to cliches. No helicopters crash into fighter jets, but people have to use their wits to get out of trouble, such as being mistaken for one of the conspirators and driven directly to HQ in a car-full of *real* conspirators who will kill you if they catch on. If Michael Bay were making this movie, the only way to escape would be to disarm the guards, shoot everyone, then leap from the car as it goes off a bridge. You probably won’t be on the edge of your seat if you watch this today, but try and think how you would get out of the jams — neither the villains nor the heroes are idiots here, which is a lot more interesting to watch.

Without giving too much away, somebody sabotages a US factory during the war, and the more we learn about it, the more it seems to be evil Americans who hate America or democracy, or just want to push America into WW2 to profit from it or to clean up financially in the aftermath of the war, etc etc. If that sounds like a laundry list of all of the “conspiracy” plots you’ve seen stretched over action movie scripts since the Cold War — congratulations. It is. And it was all here in 1942. I haven’t watched 24 in years, but they’ve retreaded every single one of those conspiracies multiple times, and done it without a single one of those non-idiot heroes and villains. So check out Saboteur if you want to see where ideas come from….

Nate and The Fat Man

January 15th, 2009 | File Under hitchcock | No comments yet

For no reason whatsoever, last week I informally decided that one of my 2009 resolutions would be to watch all of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies. Well, in truth it wasn’t for no reason — it was because I started watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents through Netflix’s Watch Instantly. For genuinely no reason, I am going to keep track of that process on this blog.

But before embarking on the journey, I decided to take stock of what the big man’s filmography actually was. And it’s not short. Here is the list:

  1. The Pleasure Garden
  2. The Lodger
  3. Downhill
  4. The Ring
  5. Easy Virtue
  6. The Farmer’s Wife
  7. Champagne
  8. The Manxman
  9. Blackmail
  10. Juno and the Paycock
  11. Murder!
  12. Elstree Calling
  13. The Skin Game
  14. Mary
  15. Number Seventeen
  16. Rich and Strange
  17. Waltzes from Vienna
  18. The Man Who Knew Too Much
  19. The 39 Steps
  20. Secret Agent
  21. Sabotage
  22. Young and Innocent
  23. The Lady Vanishes
  24. Jamaica Inn
  25. Rebecca
  26. Foreign Correspondent
  27. Mr & Mrs Smith
  28. Suspicion
  29. Saboteur
  30. Shadow of a Doubt
  31. Lifeboat
  32. Spellbound
  33. Notorious
  34. The Paradine Case
  35. Rope
  36. Under Capricorn
  37. Stage Fright
  38. Strangers on a Train
  39. I Confess
  40. Dial M for Murder
  41. Rear Window
  42. To Catch a Thief
  43. The Trouble with Harry
  44. The Man Who Knew Too Much (56)
  45. The Wrong Man
  46. Vertigo
  47. North by Northwest
  48. Pyscho
  49. The Birds
  50. Marnie
  51. Torn Curtain
  52. Topaz
  53. Frenzy
  54. Family Plot

Yikes. Just in case I run out of time — or motivation — I’ve marked the films I’ve already seen in italics (to the best of my current recollection), and will focus on the previously unseen ones to start with. If I make it through all of those, then I could tackle the repeats. And if I complete those, perhaps tackling every TV episode he directed (although he hosted every episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he only directed a few of them). And if I complete those, then I guess I’ll just watch the three or four early movies that are long out of print and believed lost entirely. I’ll let you know if I manage to pull that off.