Monday, March 10, 2008

A brief guide to Hitchcock and Elsa Lanchester


When I was a kid I used to dream of one day living just around the corner from a cinema that screened old films. (And I mean that literally – I would actually have dreams about it.) Now here I am, just shutting the front door with two minutes to go before a double-bill of British silents at my local, with live accompaniment of course.
First up, Blue Bottles, a new one on me – and I won’t admit to that very often – and completely captivating: a 25 minute short with a bizarre pedigree: directed by Ivor Montagu from a story by H G Wells (and a screenplay by his son Frank) as a vehicle for Elsa Lanchester, then a kind of hip cabaret turn, popular with the sort of urban sophisticates at whom this film, I imagine, was also aimed. It’s avant garde slapstick comedy, inventive and very opaque in its humour, with Elsa weirdly gorgeous (and gorgeously weird), not as herself but as a character called Elsa Lanchester (she gets called ‘Manchester’ and ‘Lancashire’ by other characters).
Lanchester seems like a great new find: it’s saddening to remember that this is 1928 we’re watching, that this career has been and gone, and it amounted to not much more than comic support and the occasional flourish of grotesque.
How strange not to see the potential in this extraordinary woman, thin and gawky and all odd angles, huge eyes and newspaper cartoon features. She does almost nothing but stare and comprehend; seemingly without any volition of her own she only reacts as caprice pushes and pulls and propels her through a course of events that begins with her absentmindedly blowing a whistle she finds in the street and ends with her receiving a commendation for bravery – in between comes an armed siege between the police and the delegates at a convention for criminals, all in striped jerseys (one of them Charles Laughton). Things happen to her as they do to Buster Keaton, she merely responds, entirely at their mercy.
Great roles did follow: the Bride, of course, and a singularly foxy and coquettish Mary Shelley in the prologue of the same film, along with several good roles in support of her husband, in Rembrandt and Henry VIII, as a splendid thawing puritan in Vessel of Wrath (think Hepburn in The African Queen but better) and the fearsome Miss Plimsoll in Witness For The Prosecution.
So why not a big star? I suppose because this is back then we’re talking about, and back then stars just didn’t look like Elsa Lanchester.
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ddddd.....dddddd What stars didn't look like in 1928
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My local, by the way, is Britain’s oldest working purpose-built cinema, and Hitchcock’s The Lodger, next up, gains immeasurably from the knowledge that it is unspooling in a venue where it played during its first run.
Is this Hitchcock’s greatest film? Certainly it is one of his most perfect. He liked to think of it as his first (in fact his third, but the first to bear any clear authorial stamp), and it is still conveys the energy, freshness and stylishness that electrified audiences in the twenties.
The style is heavily in debt to the German masters Hitchcock had observed while making his first two pictures, and some elements - particularly the stylised intertitles with their flashing graphics and recurring motifs and phrases - seem lifted whole from this source. Other bravura touches, such as the famous plate-glass ceiling effect whereby we witness the upstairs lodger pacing up and down from beneath the soles of his shoes - display precocity if not, perhaps, personality.
What is new, and clearly Hitchcock’s own touch, is the complete lack of moral seriousness. It is about Jack the Ripper, more or less, a savage killer of fair-haired girls at large in a still-gaslit London, but Hitchcock wants only to manipulate his audience. He chooses his subject because it is the easiest route to his chosen aim: to generate mass emotion through cinematic technique. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that in the course of this his people must suffer and die; this is fun, and that, I suspect, was new. Just compare it with Lang’s M.
Striking, too, is the close-up embrace between the lodger and the heroine towards the end, a vivid, almost morbid marriage of two pin-sharp white faces shot from a variety of subjective positions. Was Ivor Novello matinee idol enough to make the suggestion that his character might be the killer utterly impossible, as was later the case with Cary Grant in Suspicion? Or are we right to find this sequence sinister?
The film's other delights are incidental, but potent indeed - chiefly the rare chance to enjoy London's version of twenties fashion and social mores. The central character, Daisy Bunting (played by 'June'), is the first Hitchcock blonde and 'a mannequin' by profession (according to the titles) so we get to see a lot of her standing around in the latest styles before Hitchcock puts her in peril; there's also an unexpected scene of her taking a bath (in a British utilitarian bathroom, however, this is not a DeMille picture!) complete with a close-up of her feet beneath the running tap.
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ddddddddd Hitchcock doing his Eric Morecambe impression
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It may not be his greatest film, but it is surely among them, and there is a sense in which only remakes followed. Hitchcock’s career falls easily into discrete phases, each marked by periods of experimentation and uncertainty, and then by runs of efficient, often greatly successful work when he settles into the groove he has cut for himself.
Everyone knows Hitchcock, but his work is rarely assessed chronologically because the critics who lived through it with him are dead. Now we cherry-pick from his oeuvre and lose sight of its creative trajectory. Here, then, is my brief history of Hitchcock’s movies, and if I seem a little less generous than others that is only because there is a risk in pretending that everything he does is great: the risk of alienation by future generations. I’d hate to see him turn into an ossified God, a Shakespeare of whom it is an insult to say that most of his work is extremely good.
The Lodger opens phase one, the silent era, which ends with Blackmail, and this is the apprentice phase, beginning and ending with works of experimentation and characterised throughout by trial and error approaches to form and genre.
(Watch Hitchcock's The Ring, an interesting example of his silent work, for free here.)
It is followed by what is surely his golden age, the British sound period, in which he finds his feet and produces an almost unbroken run of masterpieces and near-masterpieces: The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Young and Innocent, The Lady Vanishes, Jamaica Inn.
(Watch The Man Who Knew Too Much for free here or The 39 Steps here.)
This is ended by the trip to Hollywood at the invitation of David O Selznick as the thirties become the forties, and by a new round of adjustment and experiment – literary melodrama in Rebecca, a clear masterpiece, an attempt to regain the pared-down British style in Foreign Correspondent (another) and Suspicion (fine but lesser, because of the strain of bigger stars), an entirely commendable crack at screwball comedy in Mr & Mrs Smith.
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In general, though, this third phase lacks the confidence and quality of the British work, and there is a lot of gimmickry: Lifeboat, Spellbound, Saboteur (an attempt to replay The 39 Steps as his first really American film). The masterpieces come from nowhere and are not followed-up: Shadow of a Doubt (seemingly the most obviously Hitchcockian of the bunch but one that I have unforgiveably never seen somehow), pops up between Saboteur and Lifeboat; Notorious, brilliant but untypical except in its mechanics, between two heavily Selznicked glossies (Spellbound and The Paradine Case). It is as if he himself does not quite realise what is the right material for him, though he rises to it magnificently whenever it does come his way.
The split with Selznick institutes another phase of nervous fumbling; there is an infatuation with invisible editing that yields one masterpiece (Rope) and perhaps his least appreciated film of all (Under Capricorn), a return to Britain for Stage Fright and no cigar, the murky I Confess, fascinating but not fun. Again there is the one isolated classic when the correct spark ignites his old energies: Strangers On a Train, in which the physical traumas are again rooted in psychological malevolence.
We are into the fifties now, and the Big Hollywood Years then follow, in roaring Technicolor, and another lucky streak begins. And I would certainly start the list with Dial M For Murder, a drawing-room mystery and his best fake-English film since Suspicion, notable for its restrained and subtle use of 3-D and for its celebration of Grace Kelly, who next pushes James Stewart into delinquency in Rear Window (in which a methodical murder mystery provides the justification for the most perfect ever translation to cinema of Hopper's America), and frolics delightfully with Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, a dessert between the main courses.
. eeeeeeeeeeeee Hitchcock doing his Bill Clinton impression
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A new kind of critical appreciation begins to rear its head here, however, as Hitchcock is canonised by the French auteurists and finds himself celebrated as craftsman rather than showman; the result is self-consciousness and further indecision, and only one more complete masterpiece: North By Northwest, itself an act of self-pastiche, a round-up and summation.
The rest is often interesting but never perfect, and some of it is poor. The Trouble With Harry and The Wrong Man are tangents. The Man Who Knew Too Much is always a remake (though the scenes of Stewart and Doris Day in eerily empty London streets represent the perfection of Hitchcock’s obsession with fear in broad daylight, and the supporting cast is a spotter's delight: Alan Mowbray, Hillary Brooke, Carolyn Jones, Richard Wattis, Reggie Nalder). Vertigo is his Shakespeare movie: very good, which is to place it insultingly beneath general estimation, Psycho is a purely technical exercise - with a dopey plot and no meaning beyond its own mechanics - that works splendidly the first couple of times and deserved its popularity, The Birds is a much flabbier one which is fascinating as a lab specimen but lucky indeed to have made it as a crowd-pleaser.
As to the rest, whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent, except to say that Frenzy, a last return to England is at least lean and effective, if cruel and grim and clearly the work of a man forty-five years older than the one who told basically the same story in The Lodger.
Certainly, The Lodger shows all that Hitchcock has to show, and it is true that there is a machine-like excellence to his best work that rarely spills over into emotional connection (only really, in fact, in Notorious, where Ingrid Bergman really is in danger and Cary Grant really does love her, and Rope, where James Stewart feels palpable shame for his role in inspiring a sickening murder and spits venom as he tells the killers he is going to see that they die).
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The ever-excellent Stephen Horne provided live accompaniment. Naff audience laughter was minimal, but present nonetheless, particularly at the hilarious spectacle of Ivor Novello climbing over a fence. (It's even funnier than it sounds, trust me.)
To my relief, Stephen agreed with me about this phenomenon, explaining how easily his concentration can be affected by any noise: laughing, coughing or, indeed, snoring. (“The ones who fall asleep often choose to sit in the front row.”)
He also told me of a time when, as an audience member at a sound film, he was so annoyed by two women constantly discussing the film as it went along that he had to change seats: “When the house lights went up at the end, I saw that one of them was Beryl Bainbridge.”