Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: The Lodger (1927)

The Lodger isn’t Alfred Hitchcock’s first movie. It’s just the first “Alfred Hitchcock” movie. Not only did it announce him as a singular talent, it sounded many of the notes that he would play like a virtuoso for decades: the hounded innocent, romance blossoming amidst suspicion, the merging of sex and danger, the personal cameo, and blondes blondes blondes.

So how was I introduced to it? As a poorly transferred bonus feature on a lousy DVD of Sabotage. The launch of one of the great cinematic careers reduced to an afterthought.

The poor quality of the print was soon forgotten, though. A serial killer calling himself “The Avenger” claims his latest fair-haired victim, and word spreads like a contagion. Even the title cards in this silent film are disturbing. MURDER wet from the press, one cries as the tabloids feast on the story, followed by MURDER hot on the aerial as fearful people crowd around radios. There’s a lurid, lip-smacking glee to this coverage of the coverage that remains almost unseemly. Which, need it be stressed, is intended as a compliment.

The title character (heartthrob Ivor Novello) takes a room in the house owned by the parents of lovely blonde Daisy. Our heroine isn’t afraid of the killer lurking in the London fog, possibly because she’s seeing a policeman. Although that should be of little comfort, considering he resembles the sort of unfortunate chap described by Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder’s Christmas Carol as “the fish course.” Daisy and the mysterious stranger grow closer while Inspector Haddock fumes. When The Avenger strikes again, Daisy’s parents begin noticing their tenant’s unusual hours.

It would be churlish to complain about the occasional creakiness of the plot, taken from Marie Belloc Lowndes’ novel. The movie holds up astonishingly well, and the true thrill lies in seeing Hitchcock’s command of the medium so early. Daisy and her parents are adjusting to the idea of their new boarder when they hear him pacing the floor upstairs. Hitchcock shows us the ceiling – which then vanishes, revealing the soles of Novello’s shoes as he stirs relentlessly. And the ending is a still-chilling depiction of mob violence.

A far better DVD than the one I watched was released as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Premiere Collection in 2008. At some point I’ll seek it out. The Lodger is fascinating enough to watch more than once.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Book: The Savage City, by T. J. English (2011)

“It’s ten p.m. Do you know where your children are?”

For decades, New York’s WNEW led into their nightly newscast with that ominous pronouncement. It never failed to unnerve me, conjuring up visions of lost boys and girls huddled under streetlamps as darkness and the city itself closed in on them.

That level of dread was endemic in the Gotham of the 1960s and ‘70s, the era laid bare in the new non-fiction book by T. J. English. Its chronicle of “race, murder and a generation on the edge” begins with a gruesome coincidence: the slaying of two young white women in their Manhattan apartment on the same day as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. English weaves together the stories of three men who never met, but whose lives repeatedly intersect with the fallout of what became known as the Career Girls Murders.

There’s Dhoruba Bin Wahad, who became a key figure in the Black Panthers. This material, while fascinating, is the weakest of the book’s three legs as the Panthers get bogged down in paranoia and infighting. Bill Phillips, the bent cop who would end up a star witness for the Knapp Commission at which Frank Serpico testified, personifies the NYPD’s entrenched corruption. (ASIDE: Phillips’ book On the Pad, co-written by sportswriter Leonard Schecter, was an inspiration for Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder. The latest Scudder novel A Drop of the Hard Stuff will be out shortly. I reviewed it a few months back.)

The book’s primary focus is George Whitmore, Jr., a young black man in the wrong place at the wrong time who would be charged with the Career Girls Murders and spend a decade protesting his innocence. Whitmore would become more symbol than man as the issues played out only to become an afterthought amidst the turmoil of the times, but English never strays from telling his personal story. A perfect example of Whitmore’s funhouse-mirror fate: what started out as a movie about his wrongful imprisonment ended up becoming the world’s introduction to Telly Savalas’ Kojak. Whitmore couldn’t even be the star in a film about his own life.

English, whose The Westies is another true crime favorite, has written a biography of both a place and a time that seem almost alien now but are closer than we care to think. The Savage City is a hugely ambitious book, and one that largely succeeds.

Friday, April 22, 2011

On The Web: The Mystery of the Guest Post

It’s vintage young adult fiction week over at the Abbott Gran Medicine Show, the must-read blog co-hosted by novelists Megan Abbott and Sara Gran. This week’s sterling posts include Megan’s interview with Lois Duncan, Sara on the Sweet Valley High books, and Alison Gaylin’s singular twinning of Helter Skelter and Judy Blume.

But boys read, too. So we hear from writer/cartoonist Ed Brubaker, offering a tribute to Encyclopedia Brown and The Great Brain. And, for some reason, me. In my post, I do what few will. I stand up for the Hardy Boys.

Many thanks to Megan and Sara for letting me into their clubhouse. Go read my post and all the others. Wonderful stuff galore.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: Sabotage (1936)

Sabotage is based on Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent. It’s not to be confused with Secret Agent, another Alfred Hitchcock film from 1936, adapted from W. Somerset Maugham. Or with Saboteur, which Hitch made in 1942. Also, Sabotage was released in the United States as The Woman Alone. Any questions?

Charles Bennett’s screenplay loosely follows Conrad’s book, shifting the focus from Mr. Verloc (Oscar Homolka), a foreigner in London who has allied himself with a group of terrorists, to Verloc’s gorgeous young wife Sylvia Sidney. This change facilitates, if not quite a happy ending, at least a happier one than Conrad’s. Sylvia wants to be loyal to her husband, but doubts are stirred by an undercover detective masquerading as a greengrocer (John Loder).

The previous year’s The 39 Steps is a film that simultaneously invents and perfects an entire genre. Hitch is up to similar tricks here, building the template thrillers still follow. He stages a meeting between Verloc and his handler in the London Aquarium that prefigures decades’ worth of clandestine rendezvous in public places. (Hitch ends the scene with Verloc’s dream of the city in ruins envisioned in the glass of a fish tank, a potent moment achieved with an ingenious use of stock footage.) He cleverly integrates the movie theater that Verloc owns into the proceedings, and builds a real feel for the bustling London of the period.

Sabotage is best known for the sequence that illustrates Hitchcock’s classic dictum about the difference between suspense (There’s a bomb on that bus! When is it going to – ka-BOOM!) and shock (ka-BOOM!) Audiences at the time were upset by this passage of the film, and Hitchcock later told Francois Truffaut that he regretted including it. The scene still works beautifully, so much so that the remainder of the movie feels muted. We know we’ve already seen the worst that will happen. And yet nothing in that storied sequence is as unsettling as a simple off-center close-up of Sidney’s extraordinary face, her eyes looking nervously to the left as her questions begin to grow.

Oh, and birds in Hitchcock movies? Always bad.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Movies: Hookers, Spies and Grifters

The Economist looks at the current state of home video and finds IFC Films “miles ahead of the big studios” in terms of video-on-demand. Currently available through their IFC Midnight series is X (2011), which offers additional proof that the best genre films are coming from Australia. Holly (Viva Bianca) is a veteran Sydney call girl who vowed to get out of the life by age 30. On her birthday, she’s determined to make good on that promise. Needing a partner to work one of her last appointments with her, she approaches young runaway Shay (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence). Then the job goes horribly wrong, and a very long night begins.

The thriller plot is perfunctory – the villain too broad to be truly scary, the underworld too small – but the film is obviously more interested in its two lead characters. Both actresses are terrific, offering different portrayals of female resilience. The street scenes have an authentic desperation; an encounter with heroin addicts nails their spiteful neediness. Shay’s reasons for running away are laid out in a single, beautifully brief flashback. Director/co-writer Jon Hewitt keeps the action taut and the violence brutal. A tough film with sex placed front and center. In other words, the kind of movie that’s unlikely to be made in America. Here’s the trailer.

While I’m at it, some DVD recommendations. Two recent releases that are better than the Oscar bait films that stole their thunder late last year.

Fair Game. Maybe the wrong-headed belief that we already knew everything about l’affair Valerie Plame et Joe Wilson contributed to this film’s getting lost in the awards season noise. But the script, co-written by sweary playwright Jez Butterworth, wisely keeps the focus on their marriage. The scenes set at the CIA are beautifully deadpan, The Office meets Le CarrĂ©. Director Doug Liman channels his typical pell-mell energy into a frame that’s calm but never static. Sean Penn captures Joe Wilson’s self-righteousness, which never mitigates the fact that he was, well, right. And Naomi Watts is magnificent as Valerie Plame, her reliance on traditional American values of loyalty and keeping one’s own counsel painting her into a corner. As strong a performance as I saw in 2010.

I Love You Phillip Morris. Jim Carrey is utterly fearless in this movie – his hairline is proof of that – as a secretly gay cop turned flamboyantly gay con artist. With Ewan McGregor as the fellow convict who makes an almost-honest man out of him, and a very funny Leslie Mann as the ex-wife who finds ways to remain in his life. The movie, based on a true story and co-written and directed by Glen Ficarra and John Requa (Bad Santa), is consistently surprising and frequently moving. Featuring a two-word line of dialogue that’s one of my favorites of last year. You’ll know it when you hear it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: Jamaica Inn (1939)

Alfred Hitchcock made three films based on the work of Daphne du Maurier. One is Rebecca (1940), Hitch’s American debut and his only Best Picture winner. Another is The Birds, which remains a signature work. It’s the least known of the bunch that concerns us today.

Jamaica Inn was the last movie Hitchcock made in England before heading for the bright lights of Hollywood. Speaking of bright lights, there aren’t any on display here. Jamaica Inn is in the public domain, and the available prints on DVD aren’t of the highest quality. The one I saw was murky and missing almost ten minutes of footage, a gap not mentioned anywhere on the disc. Which is unfortunate, because while Jamaica Inn is far from top-shelf Hitchcock it’s still entertaining. At any rate, it’s better than the movies watched the last few Sundays.

A battery of fine writers adapted du Maurier’s novel: Sidney Gilliat (Hitch’s The Lady Vanishes and the wonderful Green for Danger), regular Hitchcock collaborators Joan Harrison and Alma Reville (aka Mrs. Hitchcock), with additional dialogue by J. B. Priestly. We get off to a brisk start: a band of scalawags douses beacons along the rocky Cornish coast as a ship approaches, then loots the wreck and butchers the survivors. Into this wretched hive of scum and villainy rides the virginal Mary (Maureen O’Hara). She’s meant to live with her aunt and uncle at the hostel of the title, but the place is so disreputable that the coach abandons her by the side of the road. Local nobleman Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton) comes to her aid. Things turn a bit stagy once Mary arrives at the inn and realizes that her uncle has thrown in with the rogues. More reversals follow, none surprising and none really supposed to be.

Laughton is the entire show here, at times to the movie’s detriment. He seems to have found a way of enlarging his forehead, giving his eyebrows more room to roam. His performance verges on being a cartoon, but Laughton tethers it to reality; Sir Humphrey needs money, he explains, because he knows how to spend it. The result is perhaps the first great villain in the Hitchcock canon, one who meets a fitting end. The movie’s rousing last act makes up for the earlier lulls with frantic horse chases via moonlight and a grand harbor-set climax.

Hitchcock and Laughton sparred frequently, with Laughton practically taking over production. Du Maurier disliked the movie so much that she almost withheld the rights to Rebecca. She fortunately changed her mind, and Hitchcock and Laughton eventually worked together again on The Paradine Case. (And we all know how that turned out.) Enough of Hitch’s panache survives to make Jamaica Inn worthwhile ... if you can find a complete version.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book: Tough Without a Gun, by Stefan Kanfer (2011)

The last few show business biographies I’ve read have tended toward the exhaustive. Not so Stefan Kanfer’s look at Humphrey Bogart. High Sierra has made Bogie a star by page 60. 25 pages later, The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca have wrapped.

But that’s because Kanfer is taking an unconventional approach, focusing not so much on the well-trod ground of Bogart’s life but, as the book’s subtitle puts it, the actor’s extraordinary afterlife. The unique confluence of circumstance and individual personality that transformed Humphrey Bogart into “the American male par excellence: operating in a compromised and often evil world, a man without illusions.” Kanfer’s breezy style does allow a few errors of the kind Bill Crider calls out in his review to creep in. And I disagree with him on some key films in the Bogart canon. Kanfer overpraises To Have and Have Not, which aside from being Lauren Bacall’s debut is dull. And the Truman Capote-scripted Beat The Devil may have been years ahead of its time, but it’s still not funny. Being the first movie to pitch its failings and excesses as satire merits a footnote at best.

But Kanfer is passionate and insightful on why Bogart has lasted and will continue to loom large as the silver screen shrinks, crediting the combination of old-world manners (more than once he calls Bogart, born on Christmas Day 1899, the last nineteenth-century man) and contemporary skepticism. He also rightly singles out the chilling In a Lonely Place, which remains one of the great shadow portraits of Hollywood, as a career highpoint. There’s none of the theatrical distance of the same year’s Sunset Boulevard to soften the blows. Frequent Bogart collaborator John Huston prompts some of Kanfer’s best writing. Huston “had learned how to pare a book down to its essentials, retaining only the most vital, pivotal scenes and conflicts.” That’s a definition of a lost art. According to Kanfer:

Both considered themselves ‘men’s men,’ tough-minded personalities who bucked authority, talked intelligently on a variety of subjects, worked professionally, and held their liquor.

Not many like that anymore, and it’s that sense of not so much a lost world but a lost way of seeing the one we have that permeates the book. In Bogart’s eyes, it was simple: you were either a professional or a bum. Kanfer’s book is more an essay than a biography, and I enjoyed it.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Sidney Lumet, RIP

Various deadlines kept me from posting about the death of Sidney Lumet. He was a premiere chronicler of New York and of institutions large and small, which made him a premiere chronicler of America.

Few filmmakers have had careers like his, studded with so many memorable films. 12 Angry Men, which staggeringly was his first feature. His Big Apple crime dramas – Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, the magisterial Prince of the City. Network. The Verdict.

Lumet had a long and productive working relationship with Sean Connery that resulted in some of the actor’s finest work: for proof, watch the still deeply disturbing The Offence. Even the films of his that weren’t entirely successful always had something to recommend them. An awareness of an issue years before it hit the mainstream: the rise of political consultants in Power (1986), the harsh economics of medicine in Critical Care (1997). Unexpectedly strong performances brought about by Lumet’s abiding love of actors, like the ones by Nick Nolte and Armand Assante in the underrated Q&A or Don Johnson in Guilty as Sin. Or a brilliantly executed sequence, such as the opening of Night Falls in Manhattan in which a drug dealer exploits bureaucratic police confusion to escape.

Most impressive of all was that Lumet’s last efforts still had plenty of energy. 2006’s Find Me Guilty never received a full theatrical release, but it’s a rewarding off-beat courtroom drama with strong work from Vin Diesel. And Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead found Lumet embracing neo-noir and digital filmmaking with equal vigor.

Two more things about Lumet, and why he was such a huge personal favorite. One is his book Making Movies, as clear-eyed and rational a description of the process as you will find. The other is his 1982 film Deathtrap. It’s not a particularly well-remembered movie of his. But I watched it repeatedly while growing up, and still pop in the DVD at least once a year. It was the first movie I ever saw that I thought of as “sophisticated,” and that was Lumet all over. Sidney Lumet told stories aimed at adults, and he showed me that’s what I wanted to be.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Sundays with Hitch: Under Capricorn (1949)

Comes now another title from the middle of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography that tends to provoke blank stares. Let’s find out why, shall we?

The costume drama begins with Michael Wilding as a young wastrel arriving in Australia. (Oh, under Capricorn. Now I get it.) He’s instantly befriended by the unfortunately named Samson Flusky (Joseph Cotten), ex-convict turned wealthy landowner, who offers to set Wilding up in a shady deal that will make his fortune. Things turn promisingly lurid as Wilding arrives at Casa Cotten and finds the maid whipping the household retainers. But then he meets Lady Flusky (Ingrid Bergman), a childhood friend now drunk and unstable, still reeling from the scandal of having married Cotten, a mere groom. Wilding, with Cotten’s blessing, sets out to reintegrate Bergman into society but in the process various ardors are flam’d and past sins confess’d.

We’ve got three main characters who are supposed to be from the Emerald Isle played by an Englishman, an American and a Swede. This non-Irish stew of accents tackles a talky script containing some true howlers; at one point Bergman, in loon mode, cleaves to a staircase and says, “Now I have the balustrade. Good old balustrade.” Her affections toward the two men in her life go through a few too many unmotivated reversals. The rest of the plot unfortunately echoes Rebecca, and while Margaret Leighton’s maid is no Mrs. Danvers she still gives the film’s strongest performance.

Hitchcock again used 10 minute takes as he did in the previous year’s Rope, but for all the fluid movement of the camera in and around Cotten’s cabin the sequences call attention to themselves. The best moments are less ostentatious: Wilding using his coat to turn a window into a mirror for Bergman, a shot that holds on Cotten’s hand holding a necklace behind his back that he is at first eager to present as a gift and then desperate to hide.

Ultimately, Under Capricorn is a disappointing, static film from a period when the bloom had gone off the Hollywood rose for Hitchcock. Things would soon improve; Strangers on a Train, which depending on the day you ask may be my favorite of Hitch’s movies, is only two years in the future. But I’ll be moving into the past and watching some of Hitchcock’s earlier English films next.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Books: What I’ve Been Reading

California, by Ray Banks (2011). Brother Banks, the Saturday Boy hisownself and creator of the peerless Cal Innes series, returns with a book that’s short and none too sweet. Shuggie Boyle is out of prison after a four year bid and telling himself he’s a changed man. And maybe he is. He’s trying to keep his impulses in check, because if he learned anything in therapy it’s that anger is a deluded mind. And for the first time in his life, he has a goal: he’s going to hie himself from Scotland to the title state, where all dreams come true (unless they’re publicly funded). He just needs to recover his stash from his girlfriend and he’ll be winging his way west. But his old life keeps intruding on his new one.

I’ve sounded this note about Ray’s work before, and here I go again: his work is bruising, moving, and above all funny. Some writers who work the darker side of the street fall prey to self-seriousness. Others have a sense of humor that reeks of superiority; the phrase “laughing like drains” comes to mind. Banks’ punch lines are charged with both surprise and humanity. In other words, life. If you’re not reading him, kids, you’re missing out.

Kill Me Again, by Terence Faherty (1996). Scott Elliott thinks that making a sequel to the wartime classic Passage to Lisbon (think Casablanca, and think it real hard) is a terrible idea. But he’s a former actor turned shamus, not a film critic or a studio executive. His job is to find out who is accusing the follow-up film’s writer of being a Communist. Faherty ably recreates the mood of 1947 Hollywood, in particular the way returning veterans like Elliott used their wartime experience to size each other up. His faux Bogart, here named Tory Beaumont, is a genuine piece of work. Most impressive of all is his carefully wrought quasi-Casablanca sequel Love Me Again, which might have actually worked. The Elliott series is being brought back in eBook form, and I’ll certainly seek out the others. Here’s Faherty at Ed Gorman’s blog on a new collection of Elliott stories.