Stage Fright is an unusual film in several ways and seems to have been dismissed as ‘lesser Hitchcock’, partly because the director himself later spoke about it as a failure. It was the first of the films Hitchcock made for Warner Bros. after his attempts to make features for his own company Transatlantic Pictures. The two Transatlantic films were distributed by Warner Bros. so it wasn’t a big shift in industry terms. Stage Fright seems in some ways a reversion to ‘English Hitchcock’ and in this respect rather different to The Paradine Case (1947) made for Selznick in London. The latter title perhaps has an ‘international’ feel with Louis Jordan and Alida Valli in important roles and several leading American character actors supporting Gregory Peck as the star. Jane Wyman still fresh from her Oscar success in Johnny Belinda (1948) leads the cast of Stage Fright and is convincing for me as a young Englishwoman. Marlene Dietrich is a star singer but the rest of the cast is stuffed with well known British faces. The film is also one of Hitchcock’s more successful comedy hybrids with a winning performance from Alastair Sim (though Hitchcock perhaps found Sim ‘too much’ at times).
Adapted from Selwyn Jepson’s novel Man Running by Whitfield Cook and Hitchcock’s wife and fellow filmmaker Alma Reville, the novel’s title alone suggests a Hitchcock film. The change of title for the adaptation then points to a narrative in which a range of ‘performances’ by different ‘actors’ become central to the narrative. The opening credits appear over a theatre safety curtain which then rises to reveal the streets around St Paul’s with wartime bomb damage still visible in the open plots where buildings have been demolished. The film will end with the safety curtain coming down.
Driving past St Paul’s is Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) in her open two-seater with Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd). Almost immediately Cooper begins to explain why he has asked Eve to drive him out of town. He begins a long flashback which will reveal details of how he has helped the singer Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) escape from a murder scene in which her husband has been killed. But in doing so, Jonathan has incriminated himself. Eve must be infatuated with Jonathan since she appears to accept his story and the implication that he is besotted with Charlotte. She takes Jonathan to the coast and he hides out in her father’s house while Eve returns to London to try to find out more about Charlotte and how she might discover how to prove Jonathan is innocent. It is this opening with its flashback that has proved controversial about the film. Today it perhaps doesn’t cause the same problems. See what you think when you’ve watched the film.
At this point the narrative appears familiar but also altered from the ‘romance thriller’ structure that Hitchcock had been developing since the mid-1930s. Jonathan effectively disappears from the narrative for the entire central section of the film. He is ‘replaced’ by Inspector Smith (Michael Wilding) who is in charge of the murder enquiry. Eve is a drama student enrolled at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and she hopes to use her performance skills to get close to Charlotte. She approaches the Inspector in the hope of learning something but there is clearly already an attraction between them and she christens him ‘Ordinary’ Smith. ‘Ordinary’ has replaced Jonathan as the active agent in the narrative. The investigation will play out in a typically Hitchcockian manner with misunderstandings aplenty. Eve’s parents live separately but in the circumstances are re-united to help Eve. Alastair Sim and Sybil Thorndike make a suitable ‘odd couple’ who might help or hinder. The other significant character is Charlotte’s maid played entertainingly by Kay Walsh in a rather sour Cockney role. Walsh had been a lead player in the 1930s and 1940s and this is one of her early ‘character roles’, the kind of roles female lead players were often expected to take as they got older.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot details, so I’ll just work on some of the interesting angles re Hitchcock’s approach. The reason I re-watched Stage Fright, which I had seen many years ago but largely forgotten, was because one of the paper’s in last weekend’s Hitchcock Symposium on Performance was by Melanie Williams on ‘Richard Todd suffers Stage Fright: neurotic postwar British masculinity’. Todd is fourth-billed in Stage Fright, but as Melanie pointed out, in 1950 he was ‘hot’ having been highly praised for his role as a badly-wounded soldier in The Hasty Heart (UK 1949) in which he played opposite Patricia Neal and Ronald Reagan. That film was, like Stage Fright, a Warner Bros. picture made in the UK, but in this case in partnership with Associated British (ABPC). Though he was an English public school product (Shrewsbury), Todd was actually Irish and his father was a physician in the British Army. He himself went to Sandhurst and was a Captain in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and then the Parachute Regiment with a distinguished war record. He was also a trained actor from the Italia Conti Academy. He had all the right credentials but not the persona of one of Hitchcock’s ‘gentlemen’. Melanie Williams’ attribution of ‘neurotic masculinity’ in his role as Jonathan Cooper is apt. Note in the image above that he is convincing with his furrowed brow. But he seems a very different kind of character than any of those played by Cary Grant, Ray Milland or Sean Connery – all ironically less suited to be like an English gentleman but pulling it off all the same. Todd’s other problem was that he was playing opposite Michael Wilding who didn’t have the Hollywood prestige of The Hasty Heart but was one of the top British box-office stars, mainly because of his films with Anna Neagle. My personal feeling is that I’m not particularly taken with either Todd or Wilding as male stars but I can see the logic in their casting here.
Wilding as ‘Ordinary’ Smith is charming and witty and at the same time slightly vulnerable to Eve’s allure. There is a kind of ‘pairing’ structure in the film, so Eve and ‘Ordinary’ are matched by Jonathan and Charlotte. Perhaps it is a stretch to extend this to Eve’s parents who don’t really act together, but the Alastair Sim character as her father is active in supporting Eve’s ‘performances’. The fourth key player is Marlene Dietrich as Charlotte. It’s interesting that she plays a singer rather than an actor. Her performance (on stage) of the Cole Porter number ‘The Laziest Gal in Town’ is one of the highlights of the film and I’ve been trying to think of other singing performances in Hitchcock films and so far I’ve only come up with Doris Day in the re-make of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), a great performance but used a little differently by Hitchcock. There must be more in Hitchcock’s early career but I’m much less familiar with films such as Waltzes from Vienna (1934) and The Pleasure Garden (UK-Germany 1925). Charles Barr makes the point in his book English Hitchcock (Cameron and Hollis, 1999) that Hitchcock has always been interested in the role of music in dramas. But another way to look at it is in terms of ‘stage performance’ (or its equivalent). In The 39 Steps (UK 1935), the music hall stage with the ‘Memory Man’ is the setting for the climax and in The Man Who Knew Too Much it is the Albert Hall during a concert. In Stage Fright Hitchcock made use of the stage at RADA (where his daughter Patricia was a student at the time).
Hitchcock and Dietrich were roughly the same age and they had both experienced the German film industry in the 1920s. By all accounts they ‘got on’ well together and he probably didn’t treat her like he did some of his other female leads. Dietrich had learned a great deal about how to be photographed to look her best from Joseph von Sternberg and his camera crews. Hitchcock amazed his own crew by allowing her to dictate lighting and angles for her set-ups. But from the four leads I would pick out Jane Wyman as the revelation. She was in her early thirties when she made the film but I found her convincing as a younger woman. I was also impressed with her performance in All That Heaven Allows in 1955, in which she plays the ‘middle-aged’ widow who falls for Rock Hudson in Douglas Sirk’s melodrama. I realised that I have seen very few of her films and that apart from marrying Ronald Reagan she didn’t make a great impression in her early Hollywood career, often playing second lead in in routine comedies and musicals. It wasn’t until 1946 when Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend was released that she really made a splash. Perhaps it was the early experience of comedy which helped her to get the most out of Stage Fright‘s script?
Because the archives of Sight & Sound and Monthly Film Bulletin are now easily accessible (free to S&S Subscribers) I decided to see what they thought of Stage Fright. Sight & Sound (July 1950) ran an article by Simon Harcourt-Smith in which he argues that Hitchcock is wasting his talent making films that belong in the “peculiar antiseptic dream-world of the bookstall magazine”. He suggests that if he had been lured by “the comparative ‘sophistication’ of Continental studios”, things might have turned out differently. Having dismissed Hitchcock’s Hollywood work more generally, Harcourt-Smith then turns on Stage Fright. He dismisses the central plotline between Eve, Jonathan and ‘Ordinary’ and finds the only amusement in Sim and Dietrich. He suggests that it isn’t a film at all but merely a collection of turns at a theatrical garden party – a critic’s joke since the theatrical garden party in Stage Fright is perhaps not the best of Hitchcock’s ‘set pieces’. It is this kind of criticism that made Robin Wood despair and write his 1965 book on a selection of Hitchcock’s Films. The MFB review by ‘GL’ was probably written by Gavin Lambert. He makes a similar complaint about how Hitchcock could have made the film more lively if he had not only shot it in London but also re-discovered the style of his 1930s English period. But ‘GL’ does this by arguing each point cogently. The review picks out Jane Wyman as the only one of the leads who succeeds in giving an ‘expert performance’. Dietrich “looks magnificent, sings an entertaining Cole Porter song, but fails almost completely in the dramatic scenes . . .” The highest praise is reserved for the smaller parts.
What to make of all this? I think that Stage Fright is a less successful picture but it isn’t the ‘failure’ that it is so often taken to be. I surprised myself by enjoying the film and by becoming interested in the production. It is clear to me that looking back across the whole of Hitchcock’s career, it is possible to place each of the films in context and appreciate them for what they are rather than what we want them to be. In this case, Hitchcock had got a deal with Warner Bros. which gave him some security after the commercial failure of Transatlantic Pictures, but he knew that he must turn a profit on his first venture for the studio. As far as I can see, the film was popular at the box office and it made a profit. He was able to go on and complete his four film contract with Strangers on a Train (1951), I Confess (1953) and Dial M for Murder (1954). They were each successful with critics and from this point he was able to make deals with major studios which allowed him sufficient leeway to make films in the way that he wanted (most of the time at least). He was free from his Selznick deal from the early 1940s and able to base himself on major studio lots. In 1955 he began his long stint as the showman of Alfred Hitchcock Presents . . . He wouldn’t return to the UK to make a film until Frenzy in 1972.
This online event took place on Friday 11th and Saturday 12th June. It was organised by Adrian Garvey of Birkbeck, London University and Vicky Lowe of the University of Manchester. The event comprised four main sessions plus ‘Speakers’ Roundtables’, a discussion about music and performance featuring Neil Brand and Stephen Horne and a video essay presentation from Catherine Grant. Online events like this offer anyone interested in the subject the opportunity to join part or all of the sessions as a spectator. The sessions were accessible through Zoom but the only chance of interaction was via the ‘chat’ function which allowed questions to be put to panellists. (Questions were only visible to the panellists.) Being able to access what was in this case quite a ‘starry’ selection of film scholars was very welcome. I was able to follow only parts of three of the main sessions on what was otherwise a busy weekend so my apologies to contributors to the other presentations I wasn’t able to see.
I’m sure that we have all experienced a wide variety of online events over the past 15 months and as someone who has been on both ends of Zoom technology in events I’m all too aware of what can go wrong and how difficult it is to construct a presentation and deliver it by sharing your screen. I congratulate Adrian and Vicky for getting the show together and co-ordinating contributions from various sources so effectively. This was an impressively ‘collegiate’ event and when the inevitable glitches occurred, everybody was patient as they waited for problems to be dealt with. There is nothing like physically being at a conference/symposium, but online events do have a future I think.
The conference blurb opened with this passage:
Hitchcock’s professed disdain for actors is belied by the extraordinary range and depth of performances featured in his films. It might even be argued that many stars gave their richest and most complex performances in his work. Hitchcock’s films are also imbued with the theme of performance, as when his fugitive men and errant women assume fragile new identities and move between roles. Actors and other performers also often feature as characters.
Hitchcock scholarship has been extensive and the multi-layered concepts of stardom, acting and the exploration of ‘performances’ in Hitchcock’s films suggested a potentially fascinating mix of ideas. The second session on Friday afternoon saw Charles Barr open his paper with a surprising comparison of Julia Robert’s face and the face of her dog, which one of the Monty Python team had suggested could be read in much the same way. Hitchcock was very fond of dogs and many appear in his films. But he knew that you could usually easily tell a dog’s feelings from its face but that actors could present expressionless faces that could provoke very different readings depending on how they were shown in relation to other images as demonstrated by the Pudovkin/Kuleshov Effect. Charles explored Hitchcock’s ideas and how he used the effect before discussing the two Hitchcock shorts that he made in 1944 in London on behalf of the French Résistance. I’d never seen these before or thought about Hitchcock’s use of long takes after the war, partly linked to wanting to avoid the artifice of cinema when he worked on a concentration camp documentary. This was a fascinating presentation with a great deal crammed into 30 minutes. It was followed by Adrian Garvey on Claude Rains as a character actor in a leading role in Notorious, focusing on his ‘underplaying’ and his voice qualities. Alex Glancy followed this by looking at the working relationships between Hitchcock and Cary Grant, both men holding firm convictions about their work as director and star respectively. Alex’s discussion of Grant’s approach made an interesting comparison with the presentation on Claude Rains.
The programme was organised chronologically in terms of Hitchcock’s films so I had missed the silent period and ‘English Hitchcock’ on early Friday afternoon. The third session began on Saturday with Melanie Williams explaining how ‘Richard Todd suffers Stage Fright: neurotic postwar British masculinity’. I was particularly interested in Stage Fright (1950) which I managed to watch again before the Symposium. Melanie’s approach as a British Cinema scholar seemed germane to me since I feel strongly that this is a ‘British’ film, partly because of the range of British character actors featured. Richard Todd is a strange British actor for me. His sudden rise to stardom with The Hasty Heart (UK-US 1949) and his slow decline after The Dambusters (UK 1955) structured a career covering the period of ‘postwar British masculinity’ that has been worked on for a while but still offers new findings I think. Todd has never appealed to me but I learned plenty from the presentation to get me interested in looking at more of his work.
Strangers on a Train (1951) followed Stage Fright and we were offered some ideas about casting and performance by Alex Clayton. I was pleased to see this being tackled as I think casting is one of the least researched aspects of film studies. The background to this second Hitchcock film for Warner Bros. is fairly well known with the difficulty of developing a script from Hitchcock’s ideas about adapting Patricia Highsmith’s novel being matched by similar difficulties in getting all the actors Hitchcock wanted. He did get Robert Walker from MGM, a casting often referred to as a ‘casting against type’, an idea which Alex explored in his presentation. But Hitchcock failed to get William Holden as the Guy Haines character and instead went back to Farley Granger who he had used in Rope. Finally, Ruth Roman was forced on him by Jack Warner to play the Senator’s daughter. It’s not difficult to see why Alex chose this film for his research. He questioned ideas about ‘miscasting’ and as in some of the other presentations, briefly discussed the idea of the commutation test first suggested by John O. Thompson. It’s difficult now to imagine William Holden playing Guy. Hitchcock perhaps got some of his casting ideas ‘wrong’ first time round but he was certainly successful in casting Walker – or should we instead state simply that it would have been a different film with Holden? Alex explained that his research has been restricted by the pandemic in the last year since he has not been able to access Hollywood archives or to shadow a casting agent which would, he hopes, give him another perspective. I look forward to what might eventually emerge from the project.
The third paper in the session took us in a slightly different direction when Tamar Jeffers McDonald explored the singing performances of Doris Day as Jo Conway in the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Tamar offered both a detailed look at some of the nuances of Day’s singing and her emotional renderings of songs associated with the abduction of her son. She also explored Day’s dual persona of a singer who acts and an actor who can (really) sing. This was a very interesting paper and I wish I had seen the film more recently to have better appreciated some of Tamar’s analysis. I managed two papers in the fourth session. The first by David Greven offered ‘When the Villain Winces: Ray Milland and Villainous Empathy in Dial M for Murder (1954)’. In a way this seemed slightly out of place because the film preceded the Doris Day film. But then again it could also have followed the two papers dealing with Claude Rains and Cary Grant. I think this shows how interconnected these papers were. David did offer us some thoughts about how the comparison with Grant and the different performances of villainy from Rains, or in Grant’s case in Notorious at least ‘unsympathetic’ men, could be productive. I’m afraid I lost some of this presentation because I became distracted from my screen but I can see that there is something here. It would be interesting to include Stage Fright in which the usual suave Englishman type preferred by Hitchcock is played by Michael Wilding and the ‘villain’ is Richard Todd, a rather different type altogether.
Finally, I caught Lucy Bolton’s paper ‘Polished to perfection: the role of neatness and grooming in the performances of Tippi Hedren’. I had been looking forward to this as Marnie is possibly my favourite Hitchcock film and I’ve always thought Tippi Hedren has been misrepresented as a performer. I wasn’t disappointed and I enjoyed learning things about Hedren that I didn’t know before or perhaps had forgotten. Lucy spoke about Hedren’s long career as a model and her professionalism on photo shoots and, as the title of her paper suggests, the way in which she could not only wear the clothes so effortlessly but also know how to use clothes and accessories to create meanings. I think I know almost every line of dialogue and every image of Marnie but now I’m determined to look at Hedren’s performance in The Birds again.
I enjoyed all the parts of the symposium that I was able to watch and I would like to thank Adrian Garvey and Vicky Lowe for putting it all together and all the panellists for their contributions which should prove useful and productive for all of us in the online audience.
Last night BBC Radio 4’s Front Row confirmed for me that it is completely in line with the middle class view of the arts in the UK. I have moaned about this several times before but this was an almost perfect example of the programme’s lack of interest in cinema and its preference for literature and ‘quality’ TV.
The first item on the show was a discussion about the new serial on Apple TV+, an adaptation of Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast which happens to star Theroux’s nephew, Justin Theroux. Regular presenter Tom Sutcliffe, who is usually very good, had two guests, Tanya Motie and Kohinoor Sahota, whom he invited to discuss the new serial as an adaptation of the novel. At no point did he mention that the novel had been adapted for a Hollywood feature in 1986. That film was directed by Peter Weir and starred Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren and River Phoenix as the husband, wife and son who attempt to set up a new type of family enterprise in Honduras. The script for the film was written by Paul Schrader. So, the adaptation involved five of the most important figures in 1980s filmmaking. Ford was an A list star, Schrader was an A list writer-director, Peter Weir was perhaps the most reliable director available in Hollywood with a string of top-rated films to his credit, Mirren was a top line British actor and River Phoenix a rising teen star before his tragic early death. But the adaptation was not mentioned by Sutcliffe. One of the guests did mention River Phoenix and later mentioned the film as an adaptation in the 1980s but Sutcliffe ignored the possible link completely (almost as if he had a fixed agenda that precluded discussing the film). I don’t know if you find this odd. I certainly do.
I should say that I haven’t read the novel or seen the 1986 film. I was never attracted to Theroux’s writing but I have been a big fan of Peter Weir and this was one of the few films of his that I didn’t see in the 1980s. He made five major features in Australia and a further eight in Hollywood. I would bet that many more people have seen films directed by Peter Weir than read books by Paul Theroux, but Weir didn’t win literary prizes, he directed intelligent mainstream features, including some literary adaptations (and he received six Oscar nominations). As far as I’m aware, The Mosquito Coast was the least successful of Weir’s Hollywood pictures, despite Schrader’s script and the three talented leads. I would have thought it would be interesting to work out why Weir failed as a line of enquiry about how well, or not, the new serial works. But presumably the Front Row team have forgotten about Peter Weir (who is a few years younger than Paul Theroux). He is, after all, only a director whereas Theroux is a writer.I recognise that the remake is a TV serial and will have different narrative requirements but it will still share with the film the task of finding ways to represent the ideas and the characters in the novel.
I never have great expectations about the coverage of film on Front Row, though I respect Tom Sutcliffe as a general arts commentator. I do recognise that it’s quite difficult to see the 1986 film which is only available to rent on certain streamers at a relatively high price (around £7) but then Apple TV+ is also a niche offering, so why cover the serial at all? As regular readers will know, I don’t watch US TV and don’t have access to US streamers. But I do see a lot of films from around the world. I don’t feel catered for by Radio 4 which seems to dote on American TV and and English language literature, alongside music, dance and art. Fundamental is the bottom line that the BBC approach to cinema as an art form is to accept Hollywood promotions or whatever is the most high profile arthouse offering of the moment but not to treat the medium seriously. The only BBC film critic who might raise the level of debate is Mark Kermode, but he is rarely allowed onto Radio 4. My other thought re The Mosquito Coast is to link it to John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest (1985), another story about an American intrusion into the rain forests of South America, though a different kind of story. Boorman like Weir is one of the best directors to emerge in the 1960s/70s and has rarely received his due from critics. The Emerald Forest also had a mixed reception in the 1980s but as with any Boorman film it was never dull and often surprising in its ways of delivering ideas and a story. Weir and Boorman both deserve reappraisal but our film culture as presented on Radio 4 doesn’t seem to have a place for such discussions. The anti-consumerism of The Mosquito Coast and the ecological discourse of The Emerald Forest have a contemporary resonance that is worth exploring. Perhaps I should try the Radio 3 coverage which I’m told is more intelligent?
Villa Rides is a would-be tribute to the Mexican revolutionary military leader Pancho Villa which somehow comes across as a Hollywood mish-mash of the Western and the war combat picture. I have wanted to see the film for many years since it represents a missing link in the writing career of Sam Peckinpah between Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969). In 1967 Peckinpah had been working in television after the disaster of Major Dundee and he was offered a job adapting a biography of Villa by William Douglas Lansford. Peckinpah was given an office at Paramount. He was told that Yul Brynner would star as Villa and that there had to be an American in the narrative. Peckinpah drew on Paramount’s research department and produced a script that played heavily in terms of the dichotomy expressed in Villa’s idealism for the cause of the revolution and his ruthlessness in terms of military action. Villa would become one of Peckinpah’s tortured characters. David Weddle’s 1994 Peckinpah biography (If They Move . . . Kill ‘Em) suggests that the script was flawed in several structural ways but presumably those could have been worked on. Much more problematic was Brynner’s rejection of the script because the complex personality that Peckinpah created was nowhere near the the heroic figure Brynner expected and he declared that his fans would never accept him in the role. Paramount sacked Peckinpah and Robert Towne was hired to rewrite the script.
Robert Towne would later become one of the most feted writers of the so-called ‘New Hollywood’ in the 1970s but in 1967 his career was not unlike Peckinpah’s, although Sam had already directed big features. They had both written for television and Towne had been an uncredited collaborator on Bonnie and Clyde. Whatever Towne did with the script it was accepted by Brynner and shooting commenced in Spain with Buzz Kulick directing. ‘The American’ as required by Paramount became a gun-runner played by Robert Mitchum who flies from El Paso to sell guns to the rebel army opposed to Villa and the Mexican President Madero. He then switches sides and joins Villa after the first skirmish in the script in which Villa is victorious. It is after this engagement that Villa’s ruthlessnes becomes apparent, although the agent of the killings of opposition soldiers is the Charles Bronson character, Villa’s second in command Fierro. The suggestion is that Villa has also secretly delayed his attack so that many local villagers are killed by the rebel army. This, it is argued, will make the remaining villagers hate their enemies and support Villa more vehemently.
I’m not sure how much of Peckinpah’s conception of Villa was changed by Towne. He does still seem to be conflicted or confused. Weddle does suggest some other examples of Villa’s behaviour that Towne changed to accommodate Brynner, but my main problem in this case is that Brynner simply appears miscast. With a wig and often a sombrero, he doesn’t resemble Brynner as the star of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and he doesn’t look much like the real Villa (a much photographed celebrity). Worse still, he is upstaged most of the time by Charles Bronson. Brynner and Bronson were Hollywood stars who often played different nationalities/ethnicities. But the major charges against this film are the casting and scripting of the American and the introduction of the aircraft. Much as with Brynner, there seems no connection between Robert Mitchum’s star persona and the role constructed as ‘Lee Arnold’. It’s worth pointing out here that Villa’s story does include the American journalist and socialist activist John Reed who rode with Villa in the period covered by the film, as a reporter on the Mexican Revolution in 1913. It is also the case that nearly every international film about the Mexican Revolution includes a foreign mercenary. In the two best films, sometimes referred to as ‘tortilla Westerns, A Bullet for the General (Damiano Damiani, Italy 1967) and Duck You Sucker! (Sergio Leone, Italy-Spain 1971) the narrative involves a relationship between a Mexican bandit leader and, respectively, an American and an Irishman. Weddle suggests that Peckinpah’s cynical American character would have made a last minute embrace of the revolution’s ideals and that this conversion to the cause was rather contrived. On the other hand Peckinpah had learned a great deal from his research. Many American mercenaries rode with Villa and Peckinpah felt that the questions about why these Americans were there and what it meant to them would resonate with audiences responding to the US presence in Vietnam in 1967. It reminded Peckinpah himself of his time in the US Marines in China in 1945-6. As well as the American, the script includes a Mexican woman, involved with both Lee Arnold and Villa, played by the Italian actress Maria Grazia Buccella. She seems too old to be an unmarried village girl. I’m assuming her casting and that of several actors from Spain, including Fernando Rey, was just a part of the Spanish location shooting.
None of these ideas and certainly no sense of the historical events come across in the Kulick picture. Mitchum seems lost and in some of the closing stages like a whiney child – not something I ever thought I’d write about a Mitchum performance. And then there is the aircraft. I was sceptical about this but it does seem that there is evidence of aircraft flown by mercenaries operating in Mexico in 1913 and indeed that one was flown to support Villa. However, the aircraft in the film is a much later design. The other problem is that the film offers no sense of the timing of events. There are no on screen credits that give dates. Villa’s involvement in the war covers a period from 1911 to 1923 when he was assassinated. The film deals with events that took place in 1912 and the chief ‘villain’ appears to be General Huerta, played with some gusto by Herbert Lom who is always worth watching. But most audiences will struggle to understand who Huerta is, what his relationship is to President Madero and why he turns on Villa. Villa Rides doesn’t really care. The final insult is an onscreen tribute to Villa and the fact that Peckinpah’s name is still on the film as joint screenwriter (though the red typography makes it almost impossible to read). The film looks good as shot by British cinematographer Jack Hildyard (in a ‘Scope ratio but shot using Panavision lenses) and has a serviceable score by Maurice Jarre. It just seems a wasted opportunity. There are many other films about Pancho Villa and Peckinpah got his own, more successful Mexican adventure into cinemas a year later. Villa Rides was broadcast on Talking Pictures TV.
This film is available on BBC iPlayer for three weeks. I hadn’t seen it before and thought it might make a useful comparison with Ford’s They Were Expendable from a weeks ago. Although I hadn’t seen it, I thought I recognised the title and I think I’d assumed at first that it was a comedy, something also suggested by the still used by the BBC on iPlayer. It’s set during the early part of the Pacific War in 1942 and stars James Garner, then just turned 30 and a contract player at Warner Bros., who had already established himself as the lead in the TV comedy Western series Maverick (1957-62). What I didn’t know was that Garner had been a decorated soldier during the Korean War. This background throws a little light on what Warner Bros. might have hoped for with Up Periscope.
James Garner is Lieutenant J.G. Kenneth Braden who has been trained as a naval demolition engineer and as a Japanese language expert. The film opens with a romantic sub-plot which sees Braden secretly checked out by an attractive young woman from naval intelligence. Unaware he has passed a test, Braden is then shipped to Pearl Harbour and soon finds himself on board the Barracuda, a submarine under the command of Commander Stevenson (Edmond O’Brien). Braden’s mission seems ambitious and potentially dangerous for not just himself but also for the whole crew of the submarine – but only he and Stevenson know what it is. Stevenson has to get the sub close to a Japanese-occupied island so that Braden can get ashore unseen and carry out a daring spying operation – and then return undetected. If he succeeds he will have obtained vital information for a planned attack by US forces. If he fails many men will be killed in future action. What this narrative will then produce is a familiar underwater thriller in which the submarine faces Japanese aircraft and destroyers on its journey to the island and then a tense suspense thriller as Braden carries out his mission. The submarine drama is also driven by the confrontation between Braden and Stevenson as a ‘by the book’ captain whose actions are militarily ‘correct’ but perhaps not understood by his men. The light relief from the drama is provided by Alan Hale Jr., the son of the jovial character actor at Warners in the 1930s, who would later become famous for Gilligan’s Island on US TV (1964-1967).
Up Periscope! is a ‘WarnerScope’ and Technicolor presentation and it’s directed by Gordon Douglas who almost defines a ‘solid Hollywood studio director”. He made nearly 100 films and TV episodes/TV movies. Starting in the mid-1930s with shorts and then B pictures he came into the spotlight in the 1950s when he signed for Warner Bros, staying until 1965. He was probably best-known for Westerns/action pictures and crime thrillers and he made many well-known films during the 1960s. His last major picture was They Call Me Mr. Tibbs! (1970) with Sidney Poitier. He retired at the end of the 1970s. Up Periscope! was in safe hands and I certainly found the film gripping. I even fast forwarded a couple of sequences because the tension as Braden is on the island and mustn’t be seen by the Japanese got to me. I can understand some of the more negative comments in the sense that there are only a couple of (very good) war combat action sequences when the submarine is under attack. Much more time is spent on the spying mission, also very effective but the romantic sub-plot rather detracts from the main narrative, even though it is used as something Braden thinks about while he is waiting for darkness on the island. At 112 minutes the film is arguably too long for its main genre purpose. On the other hand, we might argue that the context of Braden’s recruitment for the operation and the sense of community that is engendered by Ensign Malone (Alan Hale Jr.) are important in grounding this wartime action.
If we do compare this film with a wartime film made in late 1945 such as the Ford film, that sense of community is a key element. In some ways the films are similar. Ford also includes a romance element but it is much more powerful (and doesn’t show a happy ending). He also sends MTBs out on unlikely and ambitious missions and Braden is a Lieutenant J.G. like John Wayne. The submarine is a much more enclosed and ‘closed’ world than the MTBs of the Ford film which means the confrontation between Braden and Stevenson is more personal. Edmund O’Brien has quite a difficult role and pulls it off well. The argument usually is that the wartime films need the propaganda power and big statements that the 1950s war films don’t really need at all. Like the Ford film, Up Periscope! is based on a book, in this case a novel by Rob White. White was born in the Philippines and served in the US Navy. He became quite a prolific author of what are now considered ‘Young Adult’ novels and this includes Up Periscope (the film has a U certificate in the UK, the most accessible certification for ‘all audiences’). White did serve in submarines as well as in aircraft and naval ships. Whether there is any basis in actuality for the story of Up Periscope! is unclear.
James Garner appeared in many films but for UK audiences he may be better known as Brett Maverick in the various TV series or later as Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files. I hadn’t seen him this young before, but his later persona is already visible at times as the suave, cocky conman. His role as the intrepid frogman spy was one he felt forced into by Warner Bros. There is another connection to TV series besides Garner and Hale because the submarine’s pharmacy steward is played by Edd Byrnes who was also in Maverick but better known I think in 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64). Warren Oates plays a submariner in what I think is the earliest of his performances I have seen. I don’t know if he played with Edmond O’Brien again before The Wild Bunch in 1969. Up Periscope! is well-made entertainment but not much more I think and catching sight of Warren Oates was one of its pleasures for me.
Gideon’s Day is now available in a 4 disc Blu-ray box set entitled ‘Ford at Columbia’. The other three titles are The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), The Long Gray Line (1955) and The Last Hurrah (1958). It’s an odd collection but each of the films is of interest and I like Gideon’s Day very much. It was very badly handled by Columbia back in Hollywood but the British arm of the studio made a very good job of the production in the UK, co-producing the film with Ford himself and using the MGM-British studio facilities. The film was beautifully photographed in Technicolor by Freddie Young. Gideon’s Day is a police procedural adapted from the first of a series of crime novels written by the prolific John Creasey under the pseudonym J.J. Maric. Creasey used 28 pseudonyms and wrote over 600 novels according to Wikipedia’s account. The film was initially released in the US under the title Gideon of Scotland Yard on black & white prints. Ford had a percentage of the potential profits so his treatment in the US was insulting. On the other hand, I’m not so surprised that the studio thought it wouldn’t do very well in the US since it is very ‘British’. Written by T.E.B. (‘Tibby’) Clarke, the writer of many Ealing films including The Lavender Hill Mob (1955), Gideon’s Day is delightful in many ways – even though it includes investigation of some very unpleasant crimes. It’s often described as a ‘comedy melodrama’. The Gideon novels (1955-76) also prompted a UK TV series known as Gideon’s Way (26 episodes of 50 minutes in 1965-6, tx on ITV and made by ITC on 35mm film). Ford appears to have been a fan of these kinds of stories and possibly of Creasey’s procedurals.
(The print broadcast on Talking Pictures TV in the UK uses the American title Gideon of Scotland Yard, but is in Technicolor and not cut.)
A typical Tibby Clarke script begins in the household of DCI Gideon (Jack Hawkins) during a frenetic family breakfast-time and proceeds to follow him through a day in which three different crimes are solved/averted with one involving police corruption, robbery, murder and attempted murder. The working day ends late at night with a repetition of a joke from the morning. Throughout the film Gideon’s bluff, authoritarian stance with an underlying warmth and humanity (a perfect role for Hawkins) is often undermined by comic moments. Tag Gallagher tells us that Ford remarked that Hawkins was the “best dramatic actor I worked with”.
This is a deft directing job by Ford. He moves swiftly through the interrogations and chases and keeps his own predilection for sentimental songs and bar-room brawls in check. Even so there is a genuinely funny pub saloon sequence and an almost slapstick fight. This was a period in British cinema when certain kinds of crime films and dramas were moving towards the greater realism that location shooting (usually in black and white) brought and at the same time films were starting to become ‘grittier’ in their representation of social issues. Gideon’s Day is poised between the Technicolor comedies which were so successful for Rank and the black and white crime dramas and procedurals which constituted the major dramatic genre. Jack Hawkins had already appeared as a Scotland Yard Superintendent in the Ealing film The Long Arm (1956) and as a reluctant would-be migrant to Australia in the Technicolor Ealing comedy Touch and Go (1955). In all three films mentioned here Jack Hawkins has a family and the family melodrama becomes part of the narrative. In Gideon’s Day the DCI’s long suffering wife is played by Anna Lee, one of Ford’s stock company and ‘family’. She had significant roles in How Green Was My Valley (1941) and Fort Apache (1948) as well as The Horse Soldiers (1959) and two small parts in later Ford films. In the late 1940s she was mysteriously blacklisted during the anti-Communist witch hunts in Hollywood and Ford was keen to see her re-instated. Gideon’s daughter is played by Anna Massey, daughter of the Canadian actor Raymond Massey who had appeared for Ford in Hurricane (1937). Ms Massey was certainly lucky with her father’s friends. She must have known Michael Powell through her father and her next role would be in Peeping Tom (1959). The family melodrama is neatly tied into the police work of the day through a young PC played by Andrew Ray who had been a child actor and here adds comic touches to a series of incidents involving father and daughter.
Hawkins’ co-star on the film posters is Dianne Foster, a Canadian in US film and TV who also in 1958 appeared in Ford’s The Last Hurrah. I confess the name meant nothing to me before I looked her up and I assume that Columbia simply wanted a name alongside Hawkins that North American audiences would know. The UK cast is full of well-known supporting players and overall the cast list is extensive since Gideon deals with so many cases during the day as well as struggling with his interactions at home and imposing his authority in his office at the Yard. There are fifty speaking parts.
For me Gideon’s Day was a welcome surprise. I’d seen it many years ago but not fully appreciated Ford’s skill. He handles the shifts between humour and drama skilfully – the poster at the head of this blog entry represents the comedy tone very well. The London locations are used well without being too ‘touristy’. The narrative is exaggerated with Gideon ‘solving’ the three major crimes on the same day, though there is significant ‘collateral damage’ in each case. It’s almost as if several episodes of the later TV series had been compressed into a single narrative of 90 minutes. Perhaps not surprisingly there are some similarities to another Hollywood film made (partly) in London around the same time with Hitchcock’s re-working of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) for Paramount. I think Ford actually makes a better job of representing London by remaining faithful to the script and trusting his British cast. Dianne Foster is on screen only briefly (though it is a significant role) and the film is carried by the British leads.
The only significant error in the film from my point of view was the use of a copy of the Manchester Guardian as a ‘giveaway’ clue that leads to an arrest. The Manchester Guardian was indeed based in Manchester before it became the present day London-based Guardian in the 1960s, but it was also available in London as a leading ‘quality’ national newspaper. It could be used in the film to suggest the suspect was an intellectual criminal but as a clue a local Manchester paper was more likely to signify that the suspect had travelled down from Manchester. I suspect that the London-based crew didn’t read the Guardian and didn’t explain to Ford what the paper signified.
Tag Gallagher suggests that the lack of any Irish issues in the script meant that Ford could reign back his usual anti-Britishness and instead just enjoy presenting the wide range of characters with care. (However, the film was produced by Ford’s Irish pal Michael Killanin and there are several Irish actors in small parts.) It is possible to see Jack Hawkins as Gideon presenting a familiar Fordian hero with a loving family who are perhaps neglected because of the importance of his job, but just like the cavalry families that support John Wayne in Ford’s military pictures, the family still loves the heroic father figure. Ford completed the film efficiently and under budget (there is at least one continuity error which Ford didn’t re-shoot, following his usual practice). Both Gallagher and Joseph McBride recognise the merits of Gideon’s Day, but Lindsay Anderson gets in a bit of a tangle in About John Ford, his collection of interviews and critical pieces about Ford. At one point Anderson seems to be dismissing the film as old-fashioned and with no real artistry, writing at the moment in 1957 when he interviewed Ford during the shoot and took him to the NFT. Yet later in the collection he suggests that though 1957 was a critical low point for Ford, Gideon’s Day is actually “an engaging entertainment, an almost absurdist pastiche of its middle-class English genre”. He doesn’t seem to realise he had been down on the film earlier in the collection. Still, he redeems himself a little whereas Andrew Sarris is all at sea in The John Ford Movie Mystery. Sarris sees the film as “one of Ford’s most peculiar projects” and sees the film as a comedy about the bumbling English and their “tepid tea and beastly buns”. I don’t mind being insulted in a good cause but I think Sarris just misunderstands the film completely. On the other hand the inclusion of snatches of ‘London Bridge is falling down’ in the score by Douglas Gamley does underline the comic tone of many scenes. I heartily recommend the film as good entertainment and an example of what a great film artist can produce handling a simple genre film for a Hollywood studio.