Sunday, January 8, 2017

New Year’s Nitrate: My Favorite Old Movies I Saw in 2016

I'd like to start a New Year's tradition on this blog of listing off the year's highlights of my old movie-watching. I've been meaning to do this for years, but my problem is that each movie I see, I want to blather on and on about, even the ones I don't care about much. That’s a big obstacle towards wrestling together a manageable list, even if people did want to hear my thoughts on why Trooper Hook was a much bigger disappointment than His Brother’s Wife. So, with that in mind,  I’m keeping this to a Top Ten (In No Particular Order) Favorite Old Movies I Saw in 2016.

Favorite Old Movies I Saw in 2016

Colorado Territory (1949)

I’ll have to watch this one on a double bill with High Sierra to decide if Raoul Walsh's classic story of a regretful outlaw looking for love and freedom works better as a Humphrey Bogart noir film or a Joel McCrea Western. Honestly, I enjoyed this one, but wasn't expecting to list it on my year’s best. Still, to my surprise, it stuck with me. My heart ached for the wistful chemistry between Virginia Mayo and Joel McCrea. I loved the way Walsh mixes his sets and scenery here, so that the movie flows smoothly between scenes that show McCrea dominating a group of outlaws to Western landscapes that turn him into one small man scrambling for a few more breaths of life. The tragic ending of this one also hits harder than in the earlier movie. High Sierra might have done this story first but Colorado Territory might just tell it sweeter.

Dead End (1937)

Now that I've poked a little at the movie that helped make Bogart a legend, let me throw some praise at one from his pre-stardom years. Dead End to me feels like the movie City for Conquest wanted to be, a statement about the dreams and disappointments of slum life that finds beauty in the grime. Wyler's direction shows how a movie camera can overcome staginess” with elegantly composed shots and lighting. In a way, the films obvious use of sets helps it play better today than it might have if Goldwyn had allowed Wyler to try to more directly copy real slum life. The original play, however it might have seemed in 1937, reads like more of a dark little fairy tale now, in which innocence can be rewarded and guilt punished. Add to that two great performances by Humphrey Bogart and Claire Trevor, as well as good ones from Sylvia Sidney and the Dead End Kids and you've got a thirties melodrama that knows how to do it right.

Les Girls (1957)

Some movie musicals are events. They show up at your door with a full brass band in tow, banners waving, feet stomping, the whole nine yards, and you barely have space to breathe. And some musicals slip in quietly, like an old friend from long ago that just wants to share a few laughs and drinks. Les Girls is like that, a lesser-known Gene Kelly musical that works well as a quieter, calmer cousin to the more frantic musicals of the era. Les Girls tells the story of a dance troupe leader, Barry Nichols, and the three women in his troupe that all, for one reason or another, believe they were the real love of his life. Thankfully, all three actresses, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall, and Taina Elg, come off like smart, sassy, distinct people so sitting down to listen to each of their three versions of the Barry Nichols story is a pleasure. (Honestly, they come off as much more interesting than Leslie Caron or Vera-Ellen ever had the chance to in Kellys bigger hits.) Not to mention, this film is dazzlingly pretty in its color, costumes, and choreography. 

Underworld U.S.A. (1961)

Samuel Fuller movies are for me, like iced espresso shots. Not the most subtle, never mellow, but oh man, they can blast you awake. At his best, Fuller finds ways to move his camera that startle me; nobody else makes movies that look like his. Underworld USA follows Tolly, a young delinquent who watches his fathers murder in a back alley and grows up to be a ruthless, deadly cold Cliff Robertson, out for vengeance at all costs. He is a cool-headed schemer that plays both cops and crooks against each other and yet, it is clear that Tolly is also a case of arrested development, a man who throws away real human relationships for something empty and dead. What struck me most watching this one is how well it walks a line between telling a cynical gangster story where law enforcement and lawbreakers play by the same rule book, and a story that finds the fragile humanity in those same lowlifes. Fuller’s underworld sings.

Hobsons Choice (1954)

Cliff Robertson’s Tolly might be a tough, smart ex-con, but I think Brenda de Banzie’s Maggie Hobson could eat him for breakfast. In the sly and wonderful Hobson’s Choice, Maggie Hobson, the plain, sensible and unmarried daughter of a supremely self-involved Victorian bootmaker, decides to seize the life she wants and steamrollers past anyone who stands in her way. If Tolly stands for the idea that losing your humanity is the price you must pay for accomplishing big things, than Maggie Hobson stands for the notion that big things happen only with small steps, clear heads, and eyes that sees the humanity in the humble. Watching Brenda de Banzie slowly but surely pull the rug out from under her Fallstaffian father (played hugely by Charles Laughton) is fantastic.

They Drive By Night (1940)

I have a special place in my heart for those everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Warner Brothers melodramas, where they toss in crime, romance, high society, street toughs, and plotlines that meander all over the place. They Drive By Night is one of those charmers, a movie whose erratic tone and plot shifts might owe something to the fact that it grafts a murder plot from an earlier Bette Davis flick to a tale of truck driver brothers (George Raft and Humphrey Bogart) and their rough, risky jobs. What you get is a story that starts out like Thieves Highway and ends up like Angel Face, with a wisecracking Ann Sheridan thrown in, because heck, dont we all love Ann Sheridan? Still, director Raoul Walsh manages to hold this one together and at its best, They Drive By Night feels like a roll call of all the things we love about good Warner Brothers films. Even if George Raft and Humphrey Bogart really, really feel like they should have switched roles.

The Man I Love (1947)

Raoul Walsh had quite a year with me, since this is the third film of his Im putting in my Top Ten list. In many ways, The Man I Love is a close cousin to They Drive By Night. Same kind of rambling, genre-straddling plot, the same plush, velvety art design and camerawork that Warner Brothers used for all its 40s melodramas. The main differences are that The Man I Love replaces truck drivers with torch singers and piano players and that this film has a heroine, Ida Lupino. Lupino was the villain in They Drive By Night but here, she’s in my favorite kind of Lupino role: the tough, smart dame who can tangle with anyone she wants and come out ahead. Even when she’s in skintight gold lamé. Her character may be infatuated with a rather sad sack piano player, but Lupino still walks through this thing with her shoulders straight and her head high, fully capable of sorting out everyone’s life but her own. Robert Alda is also a standout in this one, suggesting more depth to his sleazy nightclub owner than the script allows him. 

Its Love Im After (1937)

This was an unexpected fizzy delight, a ’30s comedy that pokes delicious fun at theatrical egos and talents. I enjoyed this one way more than the frantic, nastier Twentieth Century--at least Leslie Howards vain Basil Underwood and Bette Davis’ flighty Joyce Arden are people I actually enjoy spending time with. Howard and Davis play a pair of theatre stars who’ve been romantically entangled on and off the stage for years, but can’t stop fighting long enough to get married. Their lives get more complicated by the arrival of Olivia de Havilland’s breathless, lovestruck ingenue, who’s utterly convinced that Basil is the man of her dreams. Bette Davis never got to do much screwball comedy and she’s great here, as is de Havilland, playing against her later types as a a ditzy heiress. The real love story here though, is between Leslie Howard and Eric Blore and their symbiotic relationship of egotistical actor and supremely supportive butler. This is a truly underrated, hilarious comedy. 

Advise and Consent (1962)

The cynical politics of Advise and Consent feel like something out of another world as we
stand here in 2017. And I promise, I thought so well before the events of last November. A strange naivete has crept into this gripping story of backroom Congress deals, flip-flopping sympathies and cold power struggles. At least these men have a system they are willing to cheat, lie, and betray for. At least they believe it is worth their time to play the game. And yet, that doesn’t make this adaptation of Allen Drury’s novel feel at all dated to me. Instead, I felt compelled right along with the characters to go down the rabbit hole and see where the scandals led. Otto Preminger, in adapting the material, toned down much of the source material into a more ambiguous work that doesn’t take sides, finding something to value even in Charles Laughton’s spidery Southern senator and something to condemn in Henry Fonda’s self-righteous candidate. The tragedy of Don Murray’s tormented senator carries all the more force in a world where his compatriots condemn his destroyers, not out of moral outrage, but because Murray was one of their own. In today’s Washington, such loyalty would be a rare and beautiful thing.

Scaramouche (1952)

I’m topping off my list with Scaramouche which is only fitting because this gorgeous Technicolor adventure is a pure dessert film, from the costumes, to the sword fights, to the witty lines. A classic tale of an aristocrat out from revenge comes second to the banter and battles between the characters, all of whom have much more to them than they absolutely need to. Eleanor Parker may be the sexy Bad Girl, but she’s also a lively, loyal friend who’s strong enough to befriend her hated rival. Janet Leigh may be the sweet Nice Girl, but she’s not above a little manipulation of her own. Mel Ferrer is the Bad Guy, but he’s sincerely in love with both Janet Leigh and Nina Foch’s Marie Antoinette (kudos to Ferrer for pulling that off), as well as being a worthy opponent to Stewart Granger’s hero. When I think about Scaramouche, I keep coming back to this: They put more effort into this one than they had to. And it definitely shows.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Movie Review: Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen (1952)
directed by Charles Vidor, starring Danny Kaye

(Note: This is my entry in the Words, Words, Words! Blogathon, Hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association.)

Hans Christian Andersen (Danny Kaye) is the most contented man in all of his tiny village. Even though he's only a humble cobbler, his knack for spinning fairy tales out of the air dazzles the children and keeps Hans himself happily living in fantasy land. However, his tales don't sit well with the local schoolteacher, who sees his charges abandoning their books to listen to Hans. He demands that Hans be kicked out. Peter (Joey Walsh), Hans' young ward, protects his friend's innocence by convincing him to leave town for Copenhagen. Hans, overcome with the city's glamor, agrees and sets off for a grand adventure. Along the way, he wins the hearts of many people with his charming stories and songs. But one day, the naive storyteller meets a beautiful ballerina (Zizi Jeanmaire) and her angry, shouting director-husband (Farley Granger). Hans is immediately smitten with the dancer's charms. Even more so when he realizes she's the victim of an abusive marriage. His much more practical friend Peter thinks Hans is setting himself up for tragedy. But Hans is too busy pouring out his heart into a new tragic fairy tale, "The Little Mermaid," to listen. Little does he realize that he's living out his own story in a way he never imagined...

Hans Christian Andersen is one of those movies that is far more fascinating to me for what it suggests about the people that make it and watch it than for anything in the movie itself. It's a movie about one of the most famous storytellers that ever lived, the man whose best fairy tales ("The Little Mermaid," "The Ugly Duckling," "The Snow Queen") feel as timeless as the oldest stories on earth. And yet, this movie, the most famous filmed version of Andersen's life tries to honor him while simultaneously working its hardest to obliterate Andersen himself. 

It's a biopic movie, told as a fairy tale. The film even opens with a title card that says flat out they're going for pure fantasy here, no facts: "Once upon a time there lived in Denmark a great storyteller named Hans Christian Andersen. This is not the story of his life, but a fairy tale about the great spinner of fairy tales." I have to admit, it's kind of refreshing to have one of those "great artist" movies that just tells you upfront that it's not even going to pretend to a smidgen of accuracy. I've sat through so many biographical movies (the Bronte sisters melodrama Devotion being the latest and silliest) that diligently smuggle in a few facts here and there like they're crushing up some vitamin pills in the dessert. Instead
of trying for halfhearted realism, the makers of Hans Christian Andersen choose enthusiasm and magic, all the way.

Instead of making Hans Christian Andersen into the difficult, depressed, ambitious man he was, here he's a happy, singing cobbler who spins dreams for children. Instead of being a busy, proudly perfectionist writer, in this movie he stumbles into authorship in the way a man in a fairy tale might stumble into a magic castle. Instead of being a man who longed for adulation and worked hard for patronage, the Andersen that Danny Kaye plays is a simple soul whose happiest moments are when he can bring a smile to a child's face.

It's an approach to biopics that is, despite the awkwardness, kind of charming in its sincerity. This movie, helped along by a string of hummable Frank Loesser songs and a Danny Kaye performance that miraculously holds things together, is a sweet tribute to the way fairy tales can make us feel. How they can cheer us in times of trouble, help us find humor in strange places, and, as the character of Hans finds out, how they can sometimes mislead us into thinking people much less than they are.

However, the thing that makes Hans Christian Andersen a truly strange film for me, for all it's many enjoyable parts is that the very people who want to honor Andersen's life by telling it as a fairy tale end up with a film that seems as if it were made by people who never actually sat down and really read his fairy tales at all.

And seeing as how this film was a Samuel Goldwyn pet project, that's very likely the case.

My grandmother gave me a book of the complete fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen when I was a child. And one thing I learned very quickly was that Andersen fairy tales were dark. Not the dark of unabridged Grimm fairy tales; Andersen wasn't crude enough to scare
you with blood and gore alone. Oh no, you read Andersen, you get treated to gems like "The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf," in which a girl who makes the fatal mistake of using a bread loaf to keep her feet dry is rewarded with a stint in a peat bog as a witch's statue. She is forced to stay in this immobile state while hearing people on earth tell her story and weep over her sin for generations. Later on, our bread-treading girl gets to show her penitence by flying around as a bird, giving bread crumbs to other starving birds until the crumbs add up to the bread she misused. Other Andersen tales include "The Red Shoes" (a girl nearly dances herself to death until her feet are cut off), "The Story of a Mother" (a woman who fights Death tooth and nail for the life of her child, to the point of pressing thorn bushes against her bare chest and giving up her own eyes, only to be told her child is better off safe in Heaven) and "The Snowman" (a snowman falls hopelessly in love with a stove, melts, and is forgotten).

However, what struck me, even as a kid, way more than the brutal punishments and death that exist in Andersen stories, is the tone of isolation and suffering that permeates even his more whimsical tales. He could find anguish in two toys sitting on a mantel or in a Christmas tree. His characters are almost crushed under the weight of unrequited love, a personal pain that hardly ever seems to happen in our Perrault and Grimm fairy tales. Even when people win and find happy endings, they're bittersweet after the taste of so much sorrow.

And yet, Andersen's tales often succeed in speaking so well to people (children and adults) because they never take for granted those hurt feelings that sometimes really do last our whole lives. There's a reason the phrase "ugly duckling" has become a permanent part of the lexicon. And the physical tortures he inflicted on his characters could sometimes be the perfect metaphors for a character's feeling. In the original "The Little Mermaid," the mermaid not only trades the voice that would allow her to speak her feelings to her beloved human. She also endures the pain of invisible knives cutting her feet every time she walks; the price she pays for becoming a new person is a life without true rest or relief.

This is the problem with Hans Christian Andersen the Movie. At no point is it possible to connect Danny Kaye's happy cobbler with a man who could understand deep feelings of loss or a lack of belonging. The movie does hint in this direction by giving us a plot about Hans falling in love with a ballerina and, thanks to his lack of real world understanding, imagining her as a damsel in distress who loves him, too. It gives a touch of poignancy that the movie badly needs. However, the movie works so hard to emphasize the whole angle of Hans Christian Andersen, Friend to All Children, that it can't connect the man to his own actual work.

So, after all that, what makes Hans Christian Andersen a movie worth watching? Danny Kaye. After seeing so many great comedians crash and burn on the Shoals of Sentimentality (it's pretty tricky to switch to sincerity if all you're used to is snark), I was pleasantly surprised with how well Danny Kaye managed to convince me that he really is a goodhearted, humble soul who makes children smile. His idea of Hans is a man who's simple but never simpleminded. He's not dumb, he just finds too much wonder in the world to pay attention to those boring everyday matters. He gets along with kids because they're on the same wavelength. Kaye has the charisma and the acting talent to make these scenes work. Whether he's inventing "Thumbelina" for a little girl outside his jail cell or "The Ugly Duckling" for a boy with a shaved head, he's always good company. Oh and when he sings the song, "I'm Hans Christian Andersen," it will never leave your head. 

Kaye's counterpart is Joey Walsh, a child actor who plays Hans' young ward Peter (at least I guess he's a ward, the movie never really explains). Just as Hans is the child in the grown man's body, Peter is the adult in a child's boy. It's his job to explain to Hans why he has to focus on the business of cobbling shoes as well as making fairy tales. He is the one who stays by Hans' side and tries to protect him from the humiliations that others might heap on him. And Peter is the one who understands where Hans' ill-fated attraction to a married ballerina will lead him. Joey Walsh is fine in the role and the moment where Hans tries to send his friend away in a fit of temper is surprisingly sad.

Hans Christian Andersen is so much a Danny Kaye showcase that, other than Peter, the supporting characters don't fully register. Which is a shame because the whole unrequited love subplot, with Farley Granger and Zizi Jeanmaire as a dancing couple locked in a complex love-hate relationship, really begs for more explanation.

Farley Granger famously summed up Hans Christian Andersen as "Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets boy." He was pissed off at Goldwyn for foisting him into the underwritten part of the dance director who simultaneously bullies and worships his wife. Granger was nearing the end of his glory days as a Goldwyn contract player and playing second banana in a Danny Kaye vehicle could hardly have sweetened the deal. Kaye also, reportedly, saved most of his charm for his onscreen moments, carping at his director, his fellow actors, and complaining whenever he felt cheated of something. He objected to Granger getting to sing in a duet with Jeanmaire, taking the part for himself. 

Granger answered second-class treatment and a second-class part with a second-class performance. He looks great in costume but can't muster up much than bored petulance. But then, what can you do in in a part that asks you to play one half of a sadomasochistic love affair in a brightly saturated, singing kid's movie? Maybe George Sanders could have pulled that one off but not the clearly bored-out-of-his mind Farley Granger.

Moira Shearer was Goldwyn's original choice for Doro, the object of Hans' infatuation. Unfortunately, Shearer became pregnant and the role went to Zizi Jeanmaire, the famous ballerina who danced into international stardom with her 1949 interpretation of Carmen. I say, unfortunately, not because I have any real problem with Jeanmaire, but because I have a real soft spot for Shearer whose redheaded, wide-eyed beauty seems much more in tune with the damsel in distress that Hans dreams up. She was also a better actress than Michael Powell liked to admit; her tragic fates in The Red Shoes and Peeping Tom wouldn't carry nearly the bite if Shearer's characters didn't seem so joyously alive.

Jeanmaire on the other hand, plays Doro as a preening, self-absorbed cliche of a French ballerina. She's saucy and smirking, the kind of woman who seems more likely to inspire, well, Carmen, than The Little Mermaid. She's got charm but I never once believed her chemistry with either Kaye or Granger. Still, Jeanmaire does get a great moment at the end, when Doro finally, for the first time, realizes that Hans is a human being with feelings that she has completely taken for granted. The slow-dawning understanding in her eyes allows us to see, for the first time, Doro as a woman who could dance The Little Mermaid and mean it.

Also, Zizi Jeanmaire does get a fine showcase for her talents with The Little Mermaid ballet, choreographed by her husband Roland Petit. Some reviewers don't care much for the ballet interlude in the film, but I think it's a treat, adding a welcome touch of darkness and starkly beautiful pantomime to a very bright, tuneful movie. Also, if it wasn't for me looking up facts about Petit and Jeanmaire, I might never have found out about this gorgeous real-life couple of almost sixty years, who, in addition to their balletic brilliance, had the gift of looking perpetually adorable and in love in nearly every photo taken of them.

At the time of its release, Hans Christian Andersen was a smash success for Samuel Goldwyn, then in the twilight of his movie-making career. And yet, this movie exists uneasily in the land of semi-classics. It's too fondly remembered by too many people who saw and loved it as a kid to be totally forgotten. And yet it doesn't fully click for a lot of people, myself included. Really, if anyone nowadays wants to tackle a Hans Christian Andersen movie musical that actually puts some of the real Andersen in it, I would be behind them all the way. I would pay money to see someone write a song about that time when Hans Christian Andersen stayed with Charles Dickens and made himself The Most Annoying Houseguest of All Time (so annoying in fact, that he reportedly inspired Uriah Heep). Can you imagine the Dickens-Andersen duet?

In the end, even if the 1952 Hans Christian Andersen is not fully to my taste, I can still concede that there's room enough in this world for all kinds of fairy tales. The kind that end in Hollywood box office and the kind that end in peat bogs. The kind that tell what a man's work means to someone and the kind that tell us that storytelling, no matter how silly or serious, really matters.

Favorite Quote:

"The other day I asked my Gerta what time it was and she said that the minute hand and the hour hand weren't speaking to each other. They were both in love with the second hand. And they wouldn't make up until they met at twelve o'clock. And no one could tell the time until then."

Favorite Scene:

Danny Kaye singing "I'm Hans Christian Andersen." It's just so irresistibly catchy.

Final Six Words:

Sugar-spun fantasy of writer's life

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Farewell, Patty Duke

It has a name!

Patty Duke (1946-2016)

Monday, August 10, 2015

Farewell, Coleen Gray

Duke, you should have taken me with you!

Coleen Gray (1922-2015)

Monday, June 15, 2015

Farewell, Christopher Lee

I hate being idle. As dear Boris used to say, when I die, I  want to die with my boots on.

Christopher Lee (1922-2015)

There's a certain comfort in knowing that you don't have to try to be the coolest person in the world. Christopher Lee already was that person.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Movie Review: The Man Who Knew Too Much

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre

(Note: This is my submission in the Fabulous Films of the 30s Blogathon, Hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association.)

Happily married Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) are on a winter holiday at a European ski resort with their young daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam). While there, they laugh and dance and intermingle with all kinds of interesting new people, from the suave Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) to the strange, funny Mr. Abbott (Peter Lorre). But their vacation suddenly turns into a living nightmare one night when Louis falls to the ground, shot by an unseen enemy. It turns out that Louis Bernard was in fact a government agent and before he dies, he passes on a vital secret to the Lawrences. The secret is an imminent assassination in London, one that threatens to start a second world war. But before the couple can act on the information, the assassins, led by the ever-smiling Abbott, kidnap young Betty. This forces the couple to keep their mouths shut, even as the danger draws closer. However, they refuse to give up and instead, choose to search for Betty on their own. Bob and his trusty brother-in-law Clive (Hugh Wakefield) take to the back alleys of England, hunting down leads that range from the weird to the truly bizarre. Still, Abbott is onto them and so are the rest of the assassins. The family will have to find the strength and courage to save Betty and somehow do it without betraying their own country. It's a battle of wits and wills and there's no telling what could happen...

For someone who likes to introduce herself as an Alfred Hitchcock super-fan, to the point that I wrote my college admissions essay on him, it's taken me an amazingly long time to catch up with this film. It's strange, but while the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much was ridiculously easy for me to catch on TV during the periodic Hitchcock marathons, its older (and thoroughly British) sibling from 1934 has been elusive. The experience of finally seeing the original film however, gave me a renewed understanding for why both movies are so inextricably paired together in critical discussion. Comparing them is irresistible but deciding between them is very difficult. The two films are such a perfect encapsulation of their respective decades and countries, with all the attending strengths and weaknesses, that preferring one to the other seems to be less of an aesthetic judgment and more like an epicurean deciding which tickles his palate. They're equally delicious.

Both films tell the tale of a more-or-less ordinary married couple who stumble into a dangerous world of espionage and assassins. Despite their naivete and seeming helplessness, the couple find new reserves of strength and determination when their own child is kidnapped to keep their mouths shut about an impending assassination.
In the 1934 film, the Lawrences are a sophisticated English couple vacationing at a Swiss ski resort with a young daughter. The husband is well-off and contented; the wife is flirtatious and happens to be a crack shot. In the 1956 film, the McKennas are a cheerful but sometimes hapless American couple traveling through Morocco with a freckle-faced son. The husband is a blunt, guy-next-door doctor who doesn't quite fit into his foreign surroundings any more than his long legs fit under Moroccan tables. His wife is a famous singer who gave up her career for the sake of her marriage. In both films, it's the husband that takes the active role in searching and fighting while it's up to the wife to use her great talent (sharpshooting and singing, respectively) to save the day. And in both films, it's the couple's very unassuming ordinariness that causes the ruthless villains to fatally underestimate them.
The great dividing line between the 1934 film and the 1956 remake is the tone. In the brightly colored and much more expansive remake, Hitchcock gives us a fresh-faced American couple, so complacent that they can crack morbid jokes over the various patients whose ailments funded their vacation ("You know what's paying for this three days in Marrakesh--Mrs. Campbell's gall stone"). He then proceeds to torment them 'til they crack. The fact that all of this is happening to James Stewart and Doris Day, two beloved Hollywood superstars, puts the frantic emotions of the couple front and center. All of this even while Hitchcock dazzles the eye with exotic settings and amazing set pieces. Everything is so immense that even Stewart and Day can unravel without anyone noticing. The 1956 movie sort of takes the  rotten-apple-core mentality of Shadow of a Doubt, in which another innocent American goes up against ruthless villainy and pairs it to the giddy visuals of something like To Catch a Thief.

The 1934 film on the other hand, is like the speedy little roadster next to the 1956 cruise ship. It's a much compacter version of the same tale, clocking in at a mere 75 minutes. It also is much sharper in the twists and turns of its moods, careening from lightweight comedy to tense thriller and back again. It doesn't linger nearly as much on the parents. To a large extent, Leslie Banks and Edna Best are just there to keep the story moving along. They keep the stereotypical stiff upper lip to the point that even when Banks reunites with his daughter, in the middle of a group of assassins, he tries to make light of the entire situation. The one government representative we meet is coolly annoyed with the couple's secretiveness, barking at them to put their country first. And in the end, the film's most memorable character is not the couple nor any of their friends. It's the villain. 

For all those who like to harp on Hitchcock's onscreen infatuation with his blonde leading ladies, I say that Hitchcock was just as enamored (in a cinematic way) with his villains. Peter Lorre, playing the kidnapping assassin Abbott, sets a template for the charming villain that Hitchcock would repeat again and again with actors like James Mason, Ray Milland and Robert Walker. 

The story goes that Peter Lorre had to learn his lines phonetically in order to play the mysterious Abbott. Not that anybody cared because, after his indelible performance in M, they were eager to get him. Lorre's acting here is really a marvel of assurance; it's a complete 180 degree turn from his cringing, desperate performance in M. Abbott is smooth and confident, with one of the most beautifully beaming smiles you could ever hope to see. When you put him up against the bluff, so-very British Leslie Banks, Lorre almost looks like the mischievous schoolboy tweaking the nose of the headmaster. He's the guy who tosses in a Shakespeare quote as a threat ("A long, long journey 'from which no traveler returns'") and then caps it off with the deadpan aside, "Great poet." 

And yet, I think the key to Lorre's brilliance in the role is his unpredictability. Just when you think you've gotten used to Lorre as the impeccably polite villain, he turns the tables and gives you moments of sadistic menace or even, in a startling scene, genuine grief. When his creepy female accomplice dies in a shootout, Lorre holds her and looks, for a moment, like a brother holding the body of his sister. And then the moment's gone. We never learn what they were to each other. We never really understand Abbott, who smiles innocently in moments where he should threaten and looks angry in moments when everything's going his way. But Lorre is so good in the role that he eclipses everyone else. Because of him, the film ends up less as a tale of two ordinary people up against evil and instead, becomes a briskly unsentimental film which sets up scenes and knocks them over like dominoes. This is pure suspense, with no more character development than absolutely necessary.

In comparing the 1934 film and the 1956 remake, it's quite striking to see how the role of the wife evolved over the course of two decades. In the first film, Edna Best carries on in the tradition of the sprightly, sophisticated wives of '30s films. There's something a little Nora Charles-ish about her in the way she sails through rooms, cheerfully flirts with other men (in the full confidence that her husband is watching and smirking) and shoots down clay pigeons with cool panache. 

However, once her child is kidnapped, Best is pushed to the side of the story. Her own grief at the loss of her child is relegated to one scene, in which Best staggering with the news of the kidnapping, turns glassy-eyed and spins into a faint, while Hitchcock briefly cuts to a whirling POV shot. From there, her husband's off to do the work of tracking down their child, with the brother-in-law along as the trusty sidekick. Best is benched for a good chunk of the movie from then on; she reappears for the famous Albert Hall sequence and then for a final shootout with the assassins. It's in those final moments that Best seizes her own action-hero moment, grabbing a rifle and delivering the shot that will save her daughter. Even if you could see it coming (Why else establish the wife as a crack shot?), it still comes off as an exhilarating bit of physical heroism, all the more so because none of the characters treat it as anything odd.

The 1956 film, by contrast, knows it's got Doris Day and a star gets a star part. Day's emotions are given much more depth and attention than Best's. The British film treats Best's motherly anguish as so much inconvenient baggage, with the government man basically snapping at her and husband for being so unpatriotic as to, you know, care more about the life of their child than the life of a statesman. The 1956 film by contrast has a prolonged, deeply uncomfortable scene of James Stewart drugging Day to calm her; the chin-up-old-girl spirit of the original has turned into cruelty. Day's torment during the Albert Hall concert scene is also drawn out much more than Best's. In addition to being a more openly emotional character, Day's housewife is a famous singer whose ambitions have been subtly snuffed out in favor of marriage. The irony is that, despite the fact that she seems, on the surface, like a much more retrograde archetype than the earlier Best character, Day does in fact use that same powerful voice to save both her child and the statesman. She's so much more repressed than Best's action hero and yet, because her film pays more attention to her, she comes off as much more heroic.

Now that I've finally crossed the 1934 film off my list, I can say with confidence that it's a sparkling, smart movie in its own right. It's the work of a young filmmaker just discovering the full range of what he can do and the mesmerizing shifts of tone, the charismatic villain, and the quirky bursts of humor all come together perfectly. Really, when I think about it, the experience of watching both versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much is like visiting their respective locations. The 1956 film is a trip through a dazzlingly colorful, overcrowded marketplace. The 1934 original is like a trip down a snow-covered mountain. Cool, exhilarating and all over in a rush.

Favorite Quote:

"You know, to a man with a heart as soft as mine, there's nothing sweeter than a touching scene. Such as a father saying goodbye to his child. Yeah, goodbye for the last time. What could be more touching than that?"

Favorite Scene:

The scene in which Edna Best is dancing with the spy. Her husband, playfully pretending to be jealous, takes her knitting and turns it into a unraveling bit of thread that quickly entangles her and her dancing partner. It's all light and romantic. And then in one of those perfect bits of Hitchcock turning on a dime, her partner falls down, mortally wounded, and the light thread that entwined them together has suddenly become a trap. It's really the ultimate metaphor for the Hitchcock movie. 

Final Six Words:

A champagne bubble balanced on knives

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Farewell, Leonard Nimoy

Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.
Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015)