Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Reverse Hitchcock Project

In the spirit of list-making and viewing challenges over at Letterboxd, I have tasked myself with watching all of the surviving films directed by Alfred Hitchcock, but instead of doing it the conventional route, starting with his silent features, his early British talkies, and finishing with the big Hollywood titles, I’m doing it in reverse, starting with ‘Family Plot’ and finishing with ‘The Pleasure Garden’.

That’s fifty-seven films to get through, and should you want to follow my progress, here’s the link to the Letterboxd list. I’m rating and reviewing them as I go along.

Those titles are also listed here, for reference.  As of today, the 29th January, I have watched the first two.

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

Reverse Hitchcock #2, Frenzy, 1972 – ★★★★

This is a film which gets better with every viewing. The bombastic opening with Ron Goodwin’s music and a sweeping camera shot through the open Tower Bridge to a discussion on the banks of the Thames about pure water comes to a sudden end when the nude body of a strangled woman washes into view.

We meet Dick Blaney (the sadly missed Jon Finch, whose screen career probably reached its peak with this and his Macbeth, for Polanski, the previous year) a former RAF pilot down on his luck, and Babs, his barmaid girlfriend (Anna Massey). Blaney loses his job through boozing and bumps into an old friend, Robert Rusk, who runs a pitch in the Covent Garden food and vegetable market (Barry Foster, who takes a step away from solving crimes as Van der Valk as the bad guy here).

What makes Frenzy one of the better Hitchcock films is the mix of pure horror (the rape and murder of Blaney’s wife, early on, still causes chills), comedy (Alec McCowen’s delightful detective and his wife (Vivien Merchant) and their food scenes; the couple in the hotel discussing ‘The Cupid Room’), and the sheer detail – London’s unusual streets are photographed with affection in this first film by the Master in England for twenty years; and that track back from Massey’s room is pure genius.

Anyway, the performances are top-notch: Foster is superb, and he got lucky with Michael Caine passing up the part; Finch is also exceptionally good as the innocent who seems guilty through circumstantial evidence. Much has been made of the fact that Foster seems the more sympathetic character, even when we have seen his dark side in gruesome detail, but I’m not convinced that was the intention. He’s something of a Jekyll and Hyde, a dangerous character, but not likeable. It’s the black comedy of some of the situations he is in (such as the potato wagon) which may make him seem likeable, but he is a truly repellent individual.

There’s also a young and stunning Billie Whitelaw in the cast. She was an excellent actress and she is icily brilliant here.

An American gentleman: a tribute to John Hodiak

A few years ago, I made a purchase of a book online from a bookshop in Hollywood.  The book, one ‘Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver’, by J Frank Dobie, was written in 1939, and was about the Adams gold diggings of the early 1860s.  If you are wondering what this has to do with our subject, it just so happens that the copy of the book which is now in my collection once graced the shelves of John Hodiak (1914-1955) and has his handwritten ownership marker inside as proof.  Even more charming is the fact that the bookseller sent it out with a pressed rose and a red ribbon!

Hodiak is not that well remembered these days.  He was born in Pittsburgh on the 16th April 1914 and so this is his centenary year.  Through his father and mother he had Ukrainian and Polish descent, and occasionally he would play characters from these countries, or with this background, in his films.  On radio during the 1930s Hodiak created the character of Lil’ Abner, but it would be as soldiers, cowboys, or gentleman gamblers that he would be shown on the screen.

Through thirty-four films in Hollywood in what was a tragically short career, Hodiak would appear opposite some choice leading ladies, including Judy Garland (in ‘The Harvey Girls’; their duet in this frontier musical sadly did not make the final cut – where he is at his most charming as the gambler who steals Garland’s heart and finds reformation in the process), Greer Garson (in the sequel ‘The Miniver Story’, which received a mixed reception), Lana Turner (in the enjoyable ‘Marriage is a Private Affair’, where he is the stuffed shirt she marries in youthful madness), Tallulah Bankhead, for Hitchcock (in ‘Lifeboat’, his first real leading role and probably his best, flirting and sparring with the gravel-voiced lady who made few films but always left an impression), Gene Tierney (in the flagwaver ‘A Bell for Adano’, as a sympathetic major), Lucille Ball (petty criminals in ‘Two Smart People’, in a fun film), Hedy Lamarr (more criminal activities, in ‘Lady Without Passport’, a film which should have a stronger reputation than it does) and Anne Baxter, who he would marry in real life (in ‘Sunday Dinner for a Soldier’, the film on which their romance blossomed).

Other memorable roles were in the confusing ‘Somewhere in the Night’, ‘The People Against O’Hara’, the disappointing oater ‘Ambush at Tomahawk Gap’, as a charming gangster in ‘Desert Fury’, and a wartime major in ‘Dragonfly Squadron’.  It seems to me, though, that this attractive leading man never really developed into a first rate marquee name and I’m puzzled as to why.  He was also one of MGM’s ensemble cast of Dore Schary’s realistic war film, ‘Battleground’, a film which grows in reputation over the years and proves that screen idols like Van Johnson and Ricardo Montalban were effective actors.

His early death at just forty-one years old from a coronary thrombosis took one of the leading crop of actors who emerged when their peers were away at war (Hodiak was unfit for service due to problems with hypertension).  His films are occasionally revived and shown of television or at festivals, but it seems almost an accident that they are films featuring this actor and not packaged because he is in them.

His daughter with Baxter, Katrina Hodiak, a musician who bears a striking resemblance to her father, appeared in the Merchant-Ivory film ‘Jane Austen in Manhattan’, alongside her mother.

Reverse Hitchcock #1: Family Plot, 1976 – ★★★½

Full of winks and nods, this comedy chase caper with an Ernest Lehman screenplay about two criminal couples is great fun to watch. Great work from the central quartet, especially ‘Madame Blanche’ (Barbara Harris) and oily William Devane (why his career went downhill into TV movies and soap operas so quickly is a mystery).

The late Karen Black gives a wide-eyed classy performance; she seems to be a stand-out in every film she was in. Bruce Dern completes the main cast and he’s very competent as the resting actor who vaguely interests himself in petty crime.

There’s a John Williams score which perfectly fits every scene in this black comic mixture, while the spoof car chase is well done, the obligatory director cameo is a fitting farewell, and the whole thing is sumptuously shot, lit and framed. This was Hitchcock’s last film, and one of the best of his later years, enjoyable, witty, and very good indeed.

Mr Sherlock Holmes

The much-hyped third series of ‘Sherlock’ has come to an end and I have to say, I wasn’t that impressed.  When Benedict Cumberbatch hit our screens with his sociopathic amateur sleuth in the clever ‘A Study in Pink’ back in 2010 we all thought “wow’ and were blown over by the mix of modern situations and locations, technology, and the central friendship between the detective who keeps clear from people and the doctor invalided out from Afghanistan.   The first series picked elements from Conan Doyle’s stories like ‘The Dancing Men’ and brought a believable dynamic between characters we knew (Mrs Hudson, Inspector Lestrade) and those created for the series (Molly the nurse) and our central duo.  And despite being an extremely annoying character as played by Andrew Scott, the swimming pool stand-off between Sherlock and Moriarty at the close of the third episode, ‘The Great Game’ (with plot elements taken from ‘The Bruce-Partington Plans’) was excellent.

The second series had our heroes escaping from their nemesis, meeting the famous ‘Woman’, Irene Adler (here a dominatrix), doing their revision of ‘The Hounds of Baskerville’, and eventually came to a close with ‘The Reichenbach Fall’ in which Sherlock falls to his death from St Bart’s Hospital … or did he?  Our expectations of finding out just how he escaped was thwarted by the non-revelations of ‘The Empty Hearse’, the opener to series three, which had a throwaway reference to the ‘Moran’ of the Conan Doyle story, a nice bit with a video dealer which echoed the bookseller’s “bargains” of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes three decades earlier, but little else.

Cumberbatch was never going to be my favourite Holmes – half a dozen names would make the list before his (Brett, Arthur Wontner, Douglas Wilmer, Peter Cushing, Rathbone, and Eille Norwood in the Stoll silents).  His tedious pseudo-autism is wearing thin after the charming cleverness of a fish out of water of the early first series episodes, and I hope that the planned series four gets him back on track and stops our ‘Great Detective’ being the tedious show-off you want to avoid at parties.  There have been many actors who have tackled the role of Sherlock Holmes: some excellent one-shot performances of which I would have loved to see more, including Nicol Williamson and Robert Stephens, Jonathan Pryce and John Neville, Raymond Massey and Tom Baker.  Of series level Holmes, the Russian Vasily Livanov is excellent, while in cheap 1950s and 1980 TV series retrospectively I rate Ronald Howard and Geoffrey Whitehead very highly, even if they have to work with scripts of the calibre of ‘The Baker Street Nursemaids’ or ‘Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard’.  John Barrymore made a decent stab at the role in the silent era, just the once (in a play remade less successfully years later with Frank Langella).

Of the trio of modern Holmes brought to the screen (not two, as the recent Timeshift documentary had it, ignoring the US reboot named ‘Elementary’ in which Jonny Lee Miller is proving an excellent 21st century Holmes), I haven’t much time for Robert Downey Jnr, as he is only really good at playing himself and his own personality is miles away from the complex contradiction needed to depict Sherlock Holmes.  His Watson (Jude Law) is good though.  Miller’s Watson is a woman (not the first – Joanne Woodward was a Dr Watson to George C Scott’s delusional Sherlock character in ‘They May Be Giants’ and Margaret Colin was the granddaughter of the original John Watson in 1987’s ‘The Return of Sherlock Holmes’) played by Lucy Liu, and she’s brilliant, easily a match for her strange friend.  Cumberbatch is blessed with Martin Freeman as Watson, although I still find his acting technique limited – his Watson is the same as Bilbo Baggins, is the same as Arthur Dent, but it hardly matters.

So who failed to present the creation of Conan Doyle as we would expect him to be?  Christopher Lee may be a devotee of the stories, but his trio of films in which he plays Holmes suffer from bad dubbing (‘The Deadly Necklace’) and poor scripts and Watson (‘Leading Lady’, ‘Victoria Falls’, with Patrick McNee, himself a terrible Holmes in ‘The Hound of London’).  Stewart Granger looked as if he belonged in the Wild West in his ‘Hound of the Baskervilles’, and the less said about Peter Cook’s Jewish Holmes and Dudley Moore’s Welsh Watson in their ‘Hound’, the better.  Reginald Owen was poor in ‘A Study in Scarlet’, Charlton Heston may have played the role on stage in ‘The Crucifer of Blood’ but was far too old for the film.  Richard Roxburgh and Rupert Everett were miscast opposite Ian Hart’s solid Watson in a TV ‘Hound’ and an original story ‘Case of the Silk Stocking’.  John Cleese was, well, John Cleese for Comedy Playhouse’s ‘Elementary, My Dear Watson’ and ‘The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation as We Know It’.

I like my Holmes, and I’ll watch any of them, from the odd defrosted versions of Michael Pennington and Anthony Higgins, the pouty youth of James D’Arcy, the clipped tones of Clive Brook, the teenage sleuths of Guy Henry and Nicholas Rowe, and the intensity of Christopher Plummer in ‘Silver Blaze’ and ‘Murder by Decree’.  And although the third series of ‘Sherlock’ has made me lose the love and admiration I had for Cumberbatch’s performance, just a little bit, I will be back to watch him when he returns.

There’s something about our detective that brings us back time and time again.  Long may he live to be adapted and enjoyed, and long may his intellect and odd view of the world endure.

The Musketeers

The BBC have offered up a new Musketeers on Sunday evenings,  inspired by the characters, and some situations, of the Dumas novel (by coincidence, I have just started to re-read it).

We have seen Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan before on the screen of course – the silent swashbuckle of Fairbanks, the clunky RKO cheapo of 1935, Gene Kelly’s joyously energetic D’Artagnan, Oliver Reed and co in the Lester triple, Kiefer Sutherland’s boyish swordsmen, Jeremy Brett’s brazen Gascon.

Even as old men they have made a showing – let’s set aside the embarrassment of a quartet of great actors (Irons, Malkovich, Depardieu, Byrne) misfiring and think of Warren William’s oily Gascon protecting the Man in the Iron Mask.

As you can see, I know my musketeers!  This new series shows promise, and Tom Burke’s Athos caught my eye.  Already we know his secret, and D’Artagnan has met the sweet Constance.  Casting Peter Capaldi as a very nasty Cardinal will get his face a familiar sight to a Doctor Who audience ready to see him take on the role.

There’s a bit of sex in the Musketeers,  but not as much as we saw in Camelot.  A family audience, and Dumas purists,  may well enjoy.

Jane Eyre, 1956 – ★★★★

This was a superb TV adaptation which was far better than expected – I had seen a few clips before.

Stanley Baker shows us a Rochester who lives in torment but who also has some humour as you see the love between him and Jane (Daphne Slater, who plays her from childhood, and is excellent) develop.

Studio bound except for one episode’s film sequences, this overcomes the technical and budgetary limitations of 1950s tv to provide a satisfying version which raises some smiles and gives a touching ending.

It starts with the young Jane screaming with fear in the locked room at her Aunt Reed’s, where her uncle had died and every noise and shadow causes her to jump.  We then see her life at Lowood with only the kind Miss Temple and the consumptive Helen Burns as friends – and later, when Helen has died and Jane has grown she answers Mrs Fairfax’s advertisement for a governess.

The story has been covered in many adaptations since, but I have only seen a handful of earlier ones, and none of them have gone into this depth (three hours and twenty minutes of episodes).  We have the gypsy scene, the fall from the horse (which can be found on the internet, one of the two clips I had seen before), the first interview (although this time Rochester does not send for Jane, she walks in on Adele unannounced and there he is), the attempt to burn Rochester in his bed – but missing the ‘friends and shake hands’ bit, the abruptly ended wedding, and so on.

There is a lot to admire here, notably the interplay between the leads and the fact that despite the actors being only one month apart in age, they portray a twenty-year age gap accurately here.  I liked the fact that Mrs Fairfax obviously knows something is hidden on the second floor as she pulls away from Jane and does not wish her happiness, and I particularly liked the ending, which was handled well.  And the pious clergyman Rivers is truly awful, all full of Christian charity.

This version is in the BFI archives and is in fairly good condition for a 1950s TV broadcast, one of the earliest to survive from the UK.  It has lovely music and interesting opening and closing credits, starting with a silhouette of Jane and ending with one of Rochester, perhaps a nod to the ‘threads between us’ speech which is missing from this version, which alludes to the pair being one being joined together at the heart.

The Sweeney at 40: a BFI celebration

The BFI Southbank was the venue on Thursday of a celebration of that iconic cop show of the 1970s, ‘The Sweeney’ which ran for 52 episodes between 1975 and 1978, preceded by an Armchair Cinema pilot called ‘Regan’, and two feature films at the end of the series run.

The series starred John Thaw as DI Regan and Dennis Waterman as DS Carter, and Waterman was present in the Q&A at this event alongside producer Ted Childs and director Tom Clegg (and facilitator Dick Fiddy) to talk about the series, the cast, the crew, and why the mix of action, realistic violence, character interplay, and humour made a successful mixture which kept the series high in the ratings.

Waterman seemed very much ‘on image’ with quips about always meeting people in pubs, annoying his then wife by boozing with the crew after a long day’s shoot, and speaking fondly about his first time working with Thaw in the 1960s.  Childs and Clegg were also entertaining and frank about the problems they encountered in making car chases through the London Docklands, and dealing with the demanding agents of cast members (‘they asked for more money so he said ‘kill her”).

An interesting set of clips as well, including the dinner party gatecrashed by Regan and Carter by mistake, presided over by a dignified ‘JR Hartley’, a chilling sequence where a family is taken hostage and the man of the house is gunned down at the door, and a drunken song and dance routine (lifted from the Sinatra/Durante film ‘It Happened In Brooklyn’) featuring the two leads in a moment of lightness.

This was a crowd-pleasing event at which even some of the cars were present (although outside, naturally).  A worthy celebration of an archive television classic.

Wuthering Heights, 1962 – ★★½

An early TV attempt to do justice to the classic novel in 95 minutes doesn’t quite come off, although it has the correct Gothic chills by the end.

Claire Bloom is a radiant, free-spirited Cathy, although her accent is a bit wayward. As her Heathcliff, Keith Michell smoulders with rage, passion and arrogance, but he would improve in acting range over the next decade.

Rounding out the cast, David McCallum as Edgar, June Thorburn as Isabella (her decline from flighty and flirty to desperate is sad to see), Jean Anderson as Ellen, Patrick Troughton as Hindley, and Ronald Howard as Mr Lockwood – his entrance to the house in a driving snowstorm is well-realised, even if we do realise it is a studio set.

This Rudolph Cartier production was showing as part of the BFI Gothic season.  His production of Anna Karenina from the previous year, also featuring Bloom, is available on DVD, but this Wuthering Heights is sadly locked in the archives.

You can read more about this production at Screenonline.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

What’s coming up on loureviews …

Now we are in 2014 let’s take a look at some of the things I will be blogging over the next few months:

Cinema – several screenings at the BFI Southbank which I will be talking about; in the next week alone there are screenings of a ‘Wuthering Heights’ from the 1960s and a ‘Jane Eyre’ from the 1950s, and a Sweeney special.  In February there is a rare big screen outing for the 1970s classic ‘The Godfather’, a TV double of ‘Miss Julie’ (featuring a favourite of this blog, Ian Hendry) and ‘Let’s Murder Vivaldi’ (with Glenda Jackson), and a screening under the Passport to Cinema banner of ‘Black Narcissus’.

Theatre and concerts – the National Theatre’s production of ‘King Lear’ with Simon Russell Beale opens this month, and Heaven 17 play in Birmingham on Valentine’s Day.  Christy Moore and Joan Baez both play at the Royal Festival Hall this year.

Television – ‘Mr Selfridge’ is returning for a second series, ‘The Musketeers’ return in yet another version for the BBC, a biopic about the life of Ian Fleming is showing on Sky Atlantic, ‘Father Brown’ is back in the daytime, and I’ll be looking at series 1 of ‘House of Cards’ as the second series airs on Netflix.

Books – a new occasional series of posts will look at some of the books in my collection, starting with Carl Rollyson’s ‘Hollywood Enigma’ about Dana Andrews, which was first mentioned on here in my post about the film ‘Laura’.

Review projects – I will continue to dip in and out of reviews of the archive television productions aired as part of ‘Masterpiece Theatre’, ‘Play for Today’, and ‘Armchair Theatre’. 

Tribute profiles – for his centenary, the next profile will look at 1940s film favourite John Hodiak.

See you soon.

Twelve Angry Men (Garrick Theatre), review

Reginald Rose’s 1954 teleplay has certainly had a long life, and its most recent incarnation is for the stage, now running in the West End following a successful UK tour.

There are four well-known names in the cast – Martin Shaw plays the role now most closely associated with Henry Fonda in the 1957 classic film (the protagonist and the only juror to initially vote ‘not guilty’); Robert Vaughn is the old man who doesn’t have much to say, but makes pithy comments which count; Jeff Fahey (an American actor known from ‘Lost’) is the antagonist, a man who has baggage from his broken relationship with his son to deal with – this was the role Lee J Cobb played in the film; and Nick Moran of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels fame is the baseball fan who has no real interest in justice and no thought-out opinion.

Balancing these heavyweights are eight lesser known actors – Martin Shaw’s son Luke, who plays the jury foreman, David Calvitto (the bank clerk who starts out quiet but finds he has something to say), Paul Antony-Barber (the rational voice), Ed Franklin (very good as the young man from the slums who remembers how to use a switchblade), Robert Blythe (the respectful decorator), Miles Richardson (the angry bigot), Martin Turner (the polite European watchmaker), and Owen O’Neil (the irritating ad executive).  There’s a very tiny role as the security guard for Jason Riddington, who has little to do but who is the only other person we see other than the dozen men who have to pronounce their opinion on the guilt, or not, of the sixteen year old boy on trial for the murder of his father.

Those of us who know the play already expect no surprises, and indeed you can just sit back to see how well these twelve men play off each other.  The set – one room, with the sink piping in the restroom visible, and real rain against the sash windows, may not feel as claustrophobic as the scene that appears on screen, and perhaps this play requires a less cavernous space in which to watch this conversation unfold (hard to tell, as we were very near the front and so felt in the thick of the argument).   The play itself may be a little dated, and as each bit of evidence is sifted, we might well ask why only juror 9 originally had any reasonable doubt, and why the accused’s defence lawyer did not fight more for him.   The play does not offer a definitive conclusion, only the eventual verdict – in which we, the audience, might leave with a reasonable doubt.

This is a superior piece of drama, however, and was worth the £35 tickets we paid through Get Into London Theatre this year.  Perhaps not a ‘must see’ (unlike all three English language film versions) but well worth a look, and there are tickets still available.


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