Category: Hollywood

Return from the Ashes (UK-US 1965)

‘Stan’ (Maximilian Schell) and Michele (Ingrid Thulin) play speed chess when they first meet

I’ve waited several years to see this, having learned about it as the first adaptation of the novel by Hubert Monteilhet (Le retour des cendres) that formed the raw material for Christian Petzold’s Phoenix (Germany 2014). It’s a very different film from Phoenix, but representative of its production context. The film is set primarily in Paris but shot at the MGM-British studio at Boreham Wood. I’m not sure if there were any B-unit shots in Paris, or stock footage. It is presented as a very beautiful B+W ‘scope print with Christopher Challis as DoP.

Charles (Herbert Lom) comforts Michele when she first returns to Paris from the camp

The basic plot offers us Michele Wolff (Ingrid Thulin) who we meet first in late 1945, arriving in Paris by train. She has been in a Nazi concentration camp and has made it back to Paris after a period of recuperation in a German sanatorium. Flashbacks reveal that in 1940 she was a wealthy widow working as a doctor in Paris and with a stepdaughter Fabienne (Samantha Eggar) in boarding school in England. Michelle had taken a younger lover, a Polish chess champion, Stanislas Pilgrin (Maximilian Schell) and the couple were married immediately before she was seized by the Nazis as a Jewish woman. The only other principal character is Dr Charles Bovard (Herbert Lom), Michele’s colleague at the clinic.

When Michelle returns she is unrecognisable after the ravages of the camp but Bovard organises plastic surgery and the main narrative development in the story is that Stanislas does not recognise her, even though she gets back close to how she looked before. He believes the woman he married is dead but hatches a plan to steal her wealth which French law has frozen until death is confirmed or Michele is found alive. The remainder of the narrative becomes a mystery thriller involving the four principals.

Stan with Fabienne (Samantha Eggar)

The film belongs to the broader 1960s phenomenon of Hollywood films made in Europe. It was made by the Mirisch Corporation for United Artists and the novel was adapted by the celebrated Hollywood writer Jules Epstein. But the production was essentially British with John Dankworth as music director joining Challis, by this time one of the leading British cinematographers (including the later films of ‘The Archers’ (Powell and Pressburger), and British heads of department throughout the rest of the creative team. Samantha Eggar was at this point the rising young star of British cinema, having made The Collector with Terence Stamp for William Wyler in the same year. Herbert Lom was established as a fine star actor in the UK, having arrived as a Czech migrant in 1939. Many of the supporting cast were originally French but domiciled in the UK whereas Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell were at this point known across Europe. Thulin, one of Bergman’s company in Sweden in the 1950s, appeared in French, German and Italian films as well as going back to Sweden. Schell was seen as the major German actor of his generation who worked in the UK or the US as well as Germany. Overall the cast of Return from the Ashes do manage to convey a Parisian sensibility, even though they are working in English. This is in contrast to the hairstyles and costumes in the film which, following Hollywood conventions, are faithful to the 1960s more than the 1940s. (Whereas Phoenix makes a good stab at conjuring up the Berlin of 1945-6.)

Stan and Michele when they first meet again after her return

The producer-director of the film is J. Lee Thompson, a surprisingly prolific director for one who came to directing later than most. Born in 1914 he started to write plays as a teenager  and gradually through the late 1930s his scripts were used for stage plays and some films.He continued as a writer up to the time of his war service and briefly afterwards until he got the chance to direct his own work in 1950. His second film,The Yellow Balloon proved to be his breakthrough work and throughout the 1950s he was a prominent director in the UK with several hits which were also critical successes. He gradually moved into larger scale films with international stories and actors and had a huge international success with The Guns of Navarone (UK-US 1961). Several other Hollywood successes followed but by the 1970s he was still making films but most of them were not up to the standard of his 1950s British films. Thompson was a Bristolian and it looks now as if the Bristol-based ‘Rediscovering Cinema Film Festival’ based at Watershed in the city is getting interested in exploring Thompson as a filmmaker. I think Return from the Ashes is a worthwhile film. The source novel has an unusual story which in this adaptation is played with the kind of climactic sequence which prompted the distributors to copy Hitchcock and beg audiences not to give away the ending. The effectiveness of the narrative depends on the camerawork by Challis and the strong performances of the four principals. I find it difficult to describe the intensity of the performances but Thulin and Schell are dynamic. Lom provides the strong and steady background and Eggar provides the beauty, the petulance and the nastiness that the part demands.

The HD print I found online is currently available on the best known video-sharing site and I’m grateful to the person who uploaded it. I don’t think I’m likely to find the second adaptation in 1982 which was made for French TV with the title Le retour d’Elisabeth Wolff (the Michele character).

A Woman’s Secret (US 1949)

Sometimes films get a bad press and, even during the Studio Hollywood period, they fail at the box office and their directors disown them. But that doesn’t mean they are of no interest or that they can’t offer entertainment and enjoyment to some audiences today. A Woman’s Secret is one such film It has several celebrated names attached to it but it has been generally ‘bad-mouthed’. It was the second film to be directed under contract at RKO by Nicholas Ray and its problematic status is perhaps indicated by the fact that it was released after his third film. He himself tried not to be the director but was seemingly tricked into accepting the commission. He later disowned the film, but he did meet Gloria Grahame, the third-billed rising star at the studio. He was impressed with her and married her before the film came out. (The marriage was good gossip fodder and didn’t last long, but that’s another story).

Gloria Grahame as Susan in a classic mirror composition

The film was adapted from a story (a magazine serial and then a novel, Mortgage for Life) by Vicki Baum, a prolific Austrian novelist whose works were adapted in Germany and France as well as the US where she settled in 1932. The lead part was played by Maureen O’Hara, on loan from 20th Century Fox. She plays a singer, Marian Washburn, who loses her singing voice to a mystery illness. She can still sing but not with the distinctive voice that made her a star. Her long term admirer Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas), piano player and general music fixer, remains her companion and one day they discover by accident a young woman down on her luck who has a ‘voice’. They encourage her and she becomes Marian’s protégé. The young woman is Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame) who eventually becomes a radio star as ‘Estrelita’. One night after a show, Susan is upset and argues with Marian with tragic results. Susan is seriously wounded and hospitalised. Marian is arrested and the ‘secret’ of the title is why she did what she appears to have done. Marian admits to wounding Susan – but we haven’t yet seen what actually happened. Will Susan recover?

Nick Ray directs Maureen O’Hara as Marian

The film starts with Susan’s radio show and then the argument. Marian’s back story is filled in with quite lengthy flashbacks and we get to see how her relationship with Susan developed. The narrative might best be described as ‘playful’. The original material was adapted by Herman J. Mankiewicz, one of the most celebrated Hollywood screenwriters from the mid-1920s through to the early 1950s, so this was one of his last screenplays. His younger brother Joe was also a talented screenwriter and director of films like All About Eve (1950). Herman is perhaps best remembered as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Citizen Kane and the man known as ‘Mank’ about whom David Fincher directed a feature of the same title in 2020. His playfulness here  comes out in some of the dialogue and in the development of a sub-plot about the detective assigned to the case, Det. Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) and his arguments with his wife (Mary Philips). Husband and wife squabble as he always brings his work home. This time Fowler gets very pally with Luke Jordan, discussing the case at length and in response Mrs Philips gets out her Sherlock Holmes kit and proceeds to do her own sleuthing.

The film doesn’t seem to know what kind of film it is. Potentially it is a film ‘about’ singing and includes several performances. Maureen O’Hara sings in her own voice but Gloria Grahame is dubbed. Somehow though, the singing doesn’t amount to much and the film certainly isn’t a musical. It could be a mystery, a puzzle narrative – what really went on in that bedroom where Susan and Marian argued? How will Fowler and co. get the truth out of Marian? Finally, however, it seems that the film is a form of melodrama. It borrows devices from films noirs, an RKO speciality, and I was reminded of Out of the Past (1947). There are only a few noirish images, but the flashback structure was what reminded me of Out of the Past, especially a flashback to a bar in Algiers, where I half expected to find Robert Mitchum waiting for Jane Greer. The DoP is George Diskant who worked on several Nick Ray pictures including On Dangerous Ground (1951), featuring Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino. Ray’s career at RKO included several melodramas, both male and female-centred, and it isn’t surprising that noir elements crept into them as they were common in many studio productions at the time.

The staircase in the apartment Susan shares with Marian, a typical Ray composition

I can see why critics and some audiences didn’t like A Woman’s Secret and it is certainly a strange hotch-potch, but I liked its various sequences even if they don’t necessarily go well together. Mankiewicz provides some entertaining dialogue and my main reason for watching the film, to remind myself of Gloria Grahame’s performance, worked out well. Grahame is always interesting and I like Maureen O’Hara as a performer as well. One interesting auteurist aspect of the film is the staging of the first meeting of Marian, Luke and Susan (the key moment in structuring the narrative) takes place on a staircase, going down to a rehearsal room. There is also a staircase in the apartment Marian and Susan share (see above). Ray for me is always associated with the staircase, that bridge between two worlds, in this case between the bustling city outside and the world of music below. Three of the most famous of Ray’s staircase scenes are in Johnny Guitar (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Bigger than Life (1956). Ray briefly flirted with architecture as a young man and critics have noted the development of a mise en scène and a compositional and choreographic style that reflects an interesting in deviating from the straight line.

A Woman’s Secret is one of the RKO pictures which the BBC acquired ‘in perpetuity’ and it is currently available in the UK on iPlayer for several months. I think it is definitely worth a look for Grahame, O’Hara, the dialogue and early Ray style (and all in just 81 minutes). Here’s a clip of Maureen O’Hara singing. It’s a flashback, so introduced by a dissolve:

He Walked by Night (US 1948)

The hunted man loads his weapon in a familiar noir image

This little gem was broadcast as part of Talking Pictures TV ‘Late Night Friday’ schedule in the UK. Generally described as a ‘crime noir’, it’s perhaps better classified as an example of the semi-documentary police procedural cycle of films started by Jules Dassin’s The Naked City in 1948 and eventually becoming a staple of US TV as well as developing a UK equivalent. But He Walked by Night also has its own important features, primarily the camerawork of John Alton. Alton literally ‘wrote the book’ on noir night-time location shooting, characterised by intense shadows. Painting With Light was published in 1949.

The search begins . . .

. . . Roy Roberts as Captain Breen (left) and Scott Brady as Sergeant Brennan, leading the hunt

There are several other stories about its production that are worth mentioning. It was independently produced by Brian Foy, a veteran of studio ‘B pictures’, and distributed by Eagle-Lion, the company set up as part of J. Arthur Rank’s attempt to distribute his British films in the US (which meant Rank distributed this US indy in the UK). Foy gathered together some of the highly experienced filmmakers he knew from his studio operations including the writers John C. Higgins and Crane Wilbur and director Alfred L. Werker. However, there is a strong suggestion that at least some of the directing duties were by an uncredited Anthony Mann. Mann directed T-Men in 1947 for Brian Foy Productions with Higgins as one of the writers and John Alton behind the camera. A similar kind of film with ‘Treasury Men’ working undercover to root out fraud, T-Men is another form of ‘procedural’, also released by Eagle-Lion. Finally in terms of production stories it’s worth noting that Jack Webb, who has a small role in He Walked by Night as a backroom technician, would soon go on to produce and star in a radio series developing the police procedural idea and titled Dragnet (1949-57) and in turn this would become one of the most iconic US TV shows of the 1950s (1951-59 plus later series). There were also a couple of feature films and all this can be traced back to Webb’s experience on He Walked By Night.

Richard Basehart is the doomed criminal . . .

The police procedural idea was to take the idea for a film on a real case and to film on location in Los Angeles. Roy Martin/Morgan (Richard Basehart) is a burglar specialising in the then new electronics goods market(radios, TVs and tape recorders etc.) He has also acquired an arsenal of weapons and one night when he is disturbed by a police patrol car he ends up shooting a police officer. This sets off the procedural narrative which ends in a chase through the Los Angeles storm drain system, something used since as either an LA-set device or using sewers and underground tunnels in other locations – but this may be the first use and it benefits greatly from Alton’s camerawork. I enjoyed the film very much though I was struck by the moment when the officers in a patrol car hear over the radio that one of their colleagues has been shot. They are suddenly electrified and burst into action. I hope they would react similarly if any member of the public is shot. This shot reminds us that the film (and many similar procedurals that followed) relied on the co-operation of police forces which perhaps led to a selection of stories and an influence on how these were presented.

The end comes in the storm drain

I believe that this film is now in the public domain in the US so it is widely available online but to really appreciate its visual qualities, you should seek out the best quality print (see DVD Beaver for disc options or check the streamers). Richard Basehart is excellent as the dangerous man on the run and Scott Brady and Roy Roberts give solid performances as the the two police figures leading the hunt.

Witness for the Prosecution (US 1957)

French poster

Agatha Christie reportedly told Billy Wilder that this adaptation of her stage play (a success on Broadway in 1954) was the best adaptation of any of her works. The original short story had appeared in 1925 and has since been revised and re-worked many times: the play re-opens in London in a couple of weeks. After watching it on BBC4 (I don’t think I’d seen it previously) I decided that the film is very entertaining and beautifully directed and performed – but as a dramatic narrative it is simply tosh. On the other hand, audiences do love Christie’s narratives, or perhaps it simply that she creates interesting characters and twists and turns which produce puzzle structures? I’m not really a Christie fan but Wilder does intrigue me. There is an announcement at the end of the film urging the audience not to give away the ending. I suspect that most audience members will have worked out the twist well before it is revealed, but probably not all the following actions. I don’t usually like guessing the twist in narratives but in this case it is too obvious to ignore – but don’t worry, no spoilers here.

One of the joys of the film is the badinage between Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton

If you don’t know the premise of the story, Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) has been questioned by Scotland Yard about the murder of a widow, Mrs French (Norma Varden) who he has been seeing regularly for several weeks, hoping to persuade her to invest in his domestic appliance inventions. Vole’s wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) knows about these visits and can provide an alibi for her husband at the time when the murder is supposed to have taken place. Vole is brought to the chambers of the renowned barrister Sir Wilfrid Roberts (Charles Laughton) by his solicitor (John Williams). Roberts has just recovered from a heart attack and should be convalescing but he can’t resist taking the case much to the fury of his nurse (the incomparable Elsa Lanchester). Vole is duly arrested and the narrative unfolds partly through flashbacks to the first meeting of Leonard and Christine and his early visits to Mrs French and partly through statements by a limited number of witnesses at the Old Bailey. The circumstantial evidence is overwhelming but what will Christine’s role in the proceedings be?

Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) is agitated as the man in the dock

The four leads are all excellent and Wilder sets up the scenes with great skill. I don’t remember a moment when I wasn’t engaged by the storytelling. But there are some distractions. Despite the London setting, the film appears to have been made primarily at MGM studios in Culver City (it was an independent production distributed by United Artists). The two major sets, the Central Criminal Court and Roberts’ chambers in Lincoln’s Inn were both constructed in Hollywood and British actors resident in the US were used in many of the secondary roles. Tyrone Power just before his tragic early death in 1958 doesn’t really make any attempt to appear ‘English’ and I did find this a distraction, partly because when he appeared in a flashback in an RAF uniform I was reminded of his starring role in John Ford’s The Long Gray Line (US 1955) in which he plays an Irish immigrant to the US who becomes an instructor at West Point. Marlene Dietrich is cast as a German woman singing in a makeshift nightclub in Berlin in 1945 who Leonard ‘rescues’ and marries. This sequence in flashback is familiar from the various ‘rubble films’ of German cinema in the immediate post-war years.

Billy Wilder arrived in Hollywood as a scriptwriter from German cinema in the mid 1930s. He started directing with a screenplay written by himself and Charles Brackett in 1942 for The Major and the Minor. With Witness for the Prosecution he worked on a screenplay with Harry Kurnitz based on the adaptation of Christie’s play by Larry Marcus. The twists and the detail in the narrative presumably came from Christie but Wilder would have had a hand in the dialogue and Laughton and Lanchester (husband and wife) could be relied on for a polished interpretation. The same goes for Dietrich and Power. I found the dialogue exchanges often exciting and very funny. If you want an entertaining film with players at the top of their game, this is a good choice. It’s in Black and White like most of Wilder’s films up to Irma la Douce in 1963. The photography is by Russell Harlan with art direction by Alexandre Trauner, both masters of their craft. Though it isn’t a film about visual splendour, they make the most of the sets. This may also be one of the earliest features to promote the stairlift as a device to ferry the ailing Roberts up to his bed from his office – though they seem to have been available in the US since the 1930s. Witness for the Prosecution is available on BBC iPlayer in the UK for the next 27 days.

John Williams as the solicitor, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton on the stairlift.

Stage Fright (US-UK 1950)

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.

Jonathan (Richard Todd), Commodore Gill (Alastair Sim) and Eve (Jane Wyman)

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.

Eve has to ‘act a part’ to get close to Charlotte (Marlene Dietrich)

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.

Jonathan with furrowed brow, concerned about Charlotte

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.

. . . Eve is also ‘acting’ when she first meets ‘Ordinary’ Smith (Michael Wilding)

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?

Hitchcock and Dietrich, seemingly at ease on set

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.

Hitchcock and Performance: A Symposium

Hitchcock on the set for Marnie with Tippi Hedren, Diane Baker and Sean Connery

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.

Hitchcock with Farley Granger on the set of Strangers on a Train

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.