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.
It’s always a treat to find a genuine Canadian anglophone film – one that is not simply a Hollywood film shooting in Toronto or Vancouver. The Silent Partner achieved something like a cult status in the late 1970s. It won three Canadian film awards and then it was distributed by three separate companies in different regions of the US. It turns out that it was made by the American independent Carolco using Canadian tax allowance monies in Toronto. It was the first film Carolco had produced without backing by a distributor or major producer partner. Carolco became successful in the 1980s but later collapsed and its assets fell to Studio Canal which perhaps explains why this film appeared recently on Talking Pictures TV in the UK (which has licensed many Studio Canal films). The film was reviewed in Monthly Film Bulletin in September 1978, suggesting a UK release before the Canadian release. The review is dismissive and I think inaccurate on a couple of points.
The Silent Partner has a strong cast headed by Christopher Plummer, Elliot Gould and Susannah York. Gould plays Miles, a bank teller in a ‘friendly bank’ located inside a shopping mall in Eaton Square in Toronto. Susannah York is Julie who has the responsibility for the secure deposit boxes in the bank. It’s the Christmas season and from his desk Miles can see the crowds by the escalator and a Santa Claus who seems to be behaving oddly. Already primed to be looking for a hold-up attempt, Miles is prepared when the robber, Reikle (Christopher Plummer) makes his move. I don’t want to spoil what is quite clever plot development so I’ll just say that Miles devises a way to cheat Meikle and store the bulk of the money reported as stolen in a deposit box in the bank itself. But how will he get it out of the bank again? What he is about to find out is that Reikle is a vicious killer who won’t give up his attempts to get the money. The rest of the plot is a game of nerve and wits between Miles and Reikle complicated by first Miles’ attempts to develop a relationship with Julie and then the appearance of the mysterious Elaine (French-Canadian actor Céline Lomez).
MFB describes the film as a ‘caper movie’ which operates like an exploitation picture. Its reviewer suggests that the director had lost his touch and that the violence is excessive. The director was Daryl Duke who had made the journey from a career start at the National Film Board through to work with Canadian PSB station CBC. After several TV Series, in 1972 Duke got the chance to direct a low-budget Hollywood independent Payday, with Rip Torn as a country singer on the road, spiralling out of control. This was very well received but even so it was another six years before he could make The Silent Partner. It seems that for MFB the new film (with a bigger budget) couldn’t match up to the freshness of his début feature, but for other critics it still proved to be something new as a mainstream genre picture. Duke had actually made several TV movies in the 1970s and I would argue that the film is slick but still has a vitality about it. What distinguishes it are the contrasting performances of Plummer and Gould. Plummer is still probably best known outside Canada for his roles in major UK/US films in the 1960s/70s but like his slightly younger compatriot Donald Sutherland he has kept working on a wide range of productions. His credits on IMDb are well over 200 film and TV productions (Sutherland is heading for 200). When actors appear so often there is sometimes the assumption that either their performances or the productions must be routine. That certainly isn’t the case for Plummer in this film. He is terrifying and makes particularly good use of his piercing eyes, especially in disguises. Gould at this point, after a very successful period as one of Altman’s leading men, was entering what for me was a fallow period, but in this film his slightly comic demeanour worked well against Plummer’s viciousness. I’m not sure if it is deliberate but Miles as a collector of exotic tropical fish and solitary chess games seemed like a nod towards his Philip Marlow in The Long Goodbye (his attempts to feed his cat in that film are one of my favourite Altman moments). I fear that Susannah York is miscast or badly directed as she always seems to be about to smile and be surprised but Céline Lomez is very good and I’m surprised that she didn’t get more anglophone cinema roles.
As an exploitation thriller, there are two specific aspects of this film to note. A couple of scenes featuring Reikle are very violent and the murder of one character disgusted Daryl Duke so much (according to Wikipedia’s page) that he refused to shoot it and it was completed by a second unit. The second aspect is the depiction of sexuality. Both Julie/York and Elaine/Lomez are required to partially strip and Reikle shows brutality towards more than one woman. There is also a palpable homoerotic charge between the two men. Overall there is a whiff of the kind of controversy that accompanied Brian de Palma films such as Dressed to Kill a few years later. Despite a couple of plot developments that didn’t completely work for me I thought that the film had pacy action and plenty of thrills.
The film was scripted by Curtis Hanson who later went on to have his own distinguished Hollywood career (and possibly directed the scene Duke refused to shoot). Daryl Duke did get a few more chances to direct cinema releases but didn’t achieve the same success. Hollywood comedy fans might also be aware that the bank staff include a character played by John Candy in an early role. The Silent Partner was an adaptation of the Danish novel Think of a Number (Tænk på et tal) by Anders Bodelsen. Look out for it if Talking Pictures schedule it again in a few months.
Jacques Tourneur is one of those filmmakers who was perhaps wasted by ‘Studio Hollywood’. He made some excellent films and some less good ones but nearly all show an understanding of techniques, a real imagination and a great feel for composing and choreographing scenes. Nightfall is a shortish feature (78 mins) adapted from a David Goodis novel by Stirling Silliphant. That’s a good starting point. Goodis was a noir novelist, arguably as well-known in France as the US, perhaps even more so with adaptations by Truffaut (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960) as well as René Clement and Jean-Jacques Beineix. Silliphant was a prolific writer for TV and cinema from the 1950s until the 1980s, mainly for ‘tough guy’ action narratives. Nightfall was the first of his film scripts and the casting adds to the feel of the film which would sit well with some of his 1970s scripts. Aldo Ray is a distinctive figure and he is matched by Brian Keith as the lead villain, although Rudy Bond as the almost psychotic ‘Red’ eclipses Keith at times. The surprise for me was Anne Bancroft who had been appearing in films and TV for five years already, but this is the first role of hers that I’ve noticed and she is very good, even if underused in what is primarily a male action picture.
The set-up is classic film noir with Jim Vanning (Aldo Ray) introduced to us as a man perusing newspapers on a street corner in Los Angeles. It’s one of those long newsstands with papers from every major city in the US. When the cashier turns on the overhead lights as dusk approaches, the sudden brightness seems to really disturb Jim. A man asks him for a light and starts up a conversation before heading off to catch a bus. Jim goes into a bar-diner on the corner and meets a young woman, Marie (Bancroft). She wheedles $5 out of him and then they have a drink and he buys her dinner. In a parallel cut we see the man who caught the bus arrive home to meet his wife. Does he know Jim? Outside the bar Jim and Marie part and immediately two men bundle Jim into a car. Who are they? Was Marie set up to trap him? What has Jim done? It’s a brilliant start to a narrative and in a short while we’ll get a flashback that reveals the incident in which the wholly innocent Jim found himself caught up in the kind of story that only a noir writer could devise.
Without describing the plot outline in detail, I’ll just point out that Jim was on an innocent trip to the hills in winter when he became involved with a pair of violent men. Fortunately Jim escaped and by chance discovered the men had left a briefcase of money. Jim hid the money and went into hiding. But now he has been found by both the two violent men and the third man – an investigator tracking the stolen money. The narrative is clearly going to return to the hills and it will become a matter of who gets there first and finds the hidden money. We know Marie must be involved further because she is a leading player. Other than that it’s all up for grabs.
There has been some discussion about the film as to the noir label. I’m certainly not a purist in these matters. The night-time opening sequence certainly suggests noir. The sequences in the snow in the hills might seem less so but there are certainly precedents in, for example, Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1949) in which a ‘disturbed’ cop (Robert Ryan) and an angry father (Ward Bond) hunt for a young man across the snowy hills. There are also some parallels with Tourneur’s own classic noir, Out of the Past (1947) – including a scene where two urban heavies turn up in the peaceful mountain community where Jeff (Robert Mitchum) is trying to escape his past. And in turn we wonder if Marie will prove to be a femme fatale like Jane Greer’s Kathy in Out of the Past. Paranoia (and terror) can be represented in snowy and sunny landscapes just as it can in dark urban streets.
Jeff has been in the forces but he makes his living as a commercial artist which is an interesting idea for an actor as physically distinct as Aldo Ray. (Ray was best known for military roles.) Similarly, Ms Bancroft is a respectable fashion model and one of the film’s showpiece sequences is a fashion show in the open terrace of a famous LA department store watched by the two heavies and an anxious Jim Vanning. This sequence feels ‘modern’ – in fact the whole film seems to have moved on from the earlier noir world – though the slight story doesn’t have the complexity of some of the major 1950s noirs. But what it does have is the suspense and paranoia. Another reference might be Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953) – two men on a fishing trip who inadvertently give a lift to a serial killer. There is also something of the same realist feel of Lupino’s films shot around LA. Overall the film is lean and mean. The closing sequence has been controversial and I won’t spoil it but the reference here might be a ‘looking forward’ to crime thrillers which bring city violence into the agrarian community like the later films North by Northwest (1959) with its crop duster plane chasing Cary Grant and Prime Cut (1972) with its chase featuring a combined harvester. Other films which have some of the same flavour include Kiss Me Deadly (1955) – Ray has a similar presence to Ralph Meeker and Anne Bancroft even looks a little similar to maxine Cooper who played Mike Hammer’s secretary Velda. Nightfall features some excellent camerawork by Columbia house lensman Burnett Guffey who was well versed in noirish crime thrillers (e.g. Human Desire 1954 and the Ida Lupino-produced Private Hell 36 (1954)). I enjoyed the film very much and would recommend it. Anne Bancroft is a revelation and Aldo Ray’s casting works for me. Nightfall can easily be found online but I watched the Blu-ray from Arrow in the UK which includes analysis by Philip Kemp and other contributors less familiar to me, but each offers something extra on a film that deserves to be re-discovered. I hope to feature more of Jacques Tourneur’s work on the blog, so watch this space.
Here’s the scene where Jim meets Marie for the first time.
I didn’t take too much notice of the Sherlock Holmes films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson when I first came across them (on TV, I think). I didn’t really approve of updating the stories to include Nazis and ‘modern’ spies etc. What I didn’t realise was that the first two films were ‘A’ releases with significant budgets made by 20th Century Fox in 1939. Subsequently, Fox allowed their control over the rights to lapse for various reasons and they were taken up by Universal which began to produce a series of ‘B’ pictures with smaller production budgets in 1942. Eventually, Universal made a total of twelve films in which Rathbone and Bruce continued their characterisations up until 1946.
My interest in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is because the film featured Ida Lupino as the female lead. 1939 was a key year for 21 year-old Ida as she appeared in this and Lone Wolf Spy Hunt as well as her breakthrough ‘serious’ ‘A’ picture, The Light That Failed that opened on Christmas Eve. (Her fourth film that year was another Columbia ‘B’ picture, The Lady and the Mob released between Lone Wolf Spy Hunt and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.) See the ‘Ida Lupino Project page‘ on this blog.
The investment in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is evident in several ways. Daryl F. Zanuck, Vice-President of production, appears to have taken a direct role in the production, though what he did exactly isn’t clear. The money is most obvious in the quality of the sets and the camerawork of Leon Shamroy. Shamroy was known for working with minimum lighting and the final chase sequence up the Tower of London is particularly fine. London is fog-bound as the hackney cabs race through the street sets designed by Richard Day and Hans Peters. There is plenty of music in the film credited to several composers and, something of a treat, Holmes in disguise as a music hall entertainer, sings ‘I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside’ (actually not written until a few years after the narrative is set). The script was written by Edward Blum and William A. Drake (who had won an Oscar in 1932 for his script for Grand Hotel). The director Alfred W. Werker was seen as a safe studio director and this was considered one of his best films. Rathbone and Bruce are accomplished as the leads and would eventually become the benchmark for all future pairings. Ida’s part is substantial in terms of screen time and she was third-billed.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes followed The Hound of the Baskervilles, released earlier in 1939 as the second 20th Century Fox Holmes and Watson film. (‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ was originally the title of the first collection of Holmes short stories published in 1892.) The film script was officially adapted from a play by William Gillette and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first staged in 1899 but the the narrative as filmed bears little resemblance to what became a popular play. It revolves around the rivalry between Holmes and Professor Moriarty. As it begins, Moriarty is being acquitted of murder in a London court of 1894 and Holmes is too late to submit new evidence. The two men meet and Moriarty vows to find a way to defeat Holmes by carrying out an audacious criminal act that Holmes will be unable to prevent. This involves Moriarty setting up an elaborate murder plot which will intrigue Holmes and take up his time allowing Moriarty to carry out the ‘crime of the century’. The murder plot is set in train by a cryptic message sent to a pair of siblings whose father was killed on a specific date. The young woman Ann Brandon (Ida Lupino) pleads with Holmes to take on her case and protect her brother. As the plot progresses, Ann becomes the main target for Moriarty’s diversionary attack. Once Holmes realises what Moriarty has done, the chase is on and the film finishes with that climactic chase at the Tower of London which sees the end of Moriarty.
William Donati in his biography of Lupino tells us that it was a New York radio performance by Lupino opposite Orson Welles in a ‘Mercury Theatre on the Air’ mystery play which persuaded Twentieth Century Fox to offer her the role of Ann Brandon. Ida had just married the South African actor Louis Hayward and intriguingly The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes featured a cast list made up almost entirely of ‘British Empire actors’. Out of the twenty actors at the head of the cast list, only two weren’t born in the UK, South Africa, Australia or the British West Indies (and one of those was Greek). In this context, Ida was perfectly cast and she had no difficulty playing a young woman in late-Victorian London. 1938-9 was a difficult time for Ida. She had ended her contract with Paramount, deeming the roles she had been offered either by her own studio or on loans to other studios as not developing her career in any way. Instead of seeing her as an actor capable of diverse leading roles she was invariably cast in lower budget films as variations on the floosie or young ‘flighty thing’. Ida’s own response to this was to change her appearance, so out went the ‘painted doll face with the peroxide hair’ and in came a more natural look for a slimmed down Ida. The two Columbia ‘Bs’ she made in late 1938 and early 1939 were her first films for a year. When she finally got a part in a more prestigious pic like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes it was definitely a step up from her perspective.
I enjoyed The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It’s good entertainment, handsomely mounted. Ida Lupino does a good job. True she doesn’t get a chance to really show the range of her talent, but the role is substantial and she matches the other established actors. The film was and remains very popular (it has an IMDb rating of 7.4). It did Ida no harm to be in a major studio production with high production values and from this point on, Ida Lupino moves towards being an ‘A’ List movie star. The next two films she worked on were crucially important.
Article 15 opened the recent London Indian Film Festival and went on to win the festival’s Audience Award. It took me a few days to realise that it was also released in UK cinemas and fortunately I managed to catch it before it disappeared. Like most contemporary Indian ‘independent’ films it seems to have struggled in Bradford. That’s a shame because this is a hard-hitting drama that had me pinned to my seat for 130 minutes. The title refers to Article 15 of the Indian Constitution of 1950 which lays down equality in the eyes of the law for all Indian citizens irrespective of religion, ethnicity, caste, gender or place of birth. In reality it has been very difficult to uphold the rights enshrined in Article 15, especially in village communities where traditional values prove difficult to challenge.
Writer-director Anubhav Sinha and his co-writer Gaurav Solanki have written a script which sees the familiar figure of a sophisticated urban police officer (an officer of the IPS – Indian Police Service) sent to rural Uttar Pradesh to take charge of a district police station – only to find himself immediately embroiled in a case which challenges all his beliefs. (The suggestion is that his posting is some form of ‘punishment’ by the Home Ministry or senior management of the IPS.) The IPS is an ‘All India Service’ that operates across the Union and provides senior officers for state police – I think the officer here is a Superintendent of a Rural District. The narrative is loosely inspired by two historical cases of gang-rape in 2014 and public flogging in 2016. Three young teenage girls go missing but two of them are soon discovered murdered and their fathers charged with honour killing. The new police chief is suspicious about the swift resolution of the case and the subsequent failure to find the third girl. He discovers that caste discrimination is at the centre of the problem which further involves exploitation of child labour and communal tensions around election campaigns. The narrative develops as a police procedural with political interference.
The film has a very distinctive look, ‘feel’ and sound design. Cinematography by Ewan Mulligan on his third shoot for the director is extraordinary. Many of the scenes take place from ‘dusk to dawn’ so that the villages are constantly dark and dim, lit by torches or fires. As one journalist puts it: “Even the weather becomes a metaphor for the fog of lies in the village” (Gayle Sequeira, Film Companion website). When there is full daylight, the image is often de-saturated so that the world is reduced to tones of grey, green and yellow and mists shroud scenes. Mulligan cites Tarkovsky and Gordon Willis as his inspiration. Both cinematographer and director were aware of the likely comparisons with American narratives about crusading cops going into the Deep South and grappling with traditional communities. The ‘feel’ of the film comes as much from horror films as from procedurals (Mulligan has a background including horror shoots). The use of music in the film is both unsettling and unusual. Much of the time the use of music cues to emphasise shocks and a general feel of ‘dread’ seems overplayed. The film opens with Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and closes with a rap number. In between, the credits suggested several songs but I don’t remember hearing them – there is far too much going on. The title credits suggest two main production companies for the film, the private company Benaras Mediaworks (which also produced Sinha’s two previous films) and the TV/Music company Zee Entertainment. I’m not sure if Zee’s involvement makes this a mainstream film, but ‘Bollywood’ it ain’t. It’s getting increasingly difficult to distinguish what might be an Independent or ‘Hindie’ film.
Language itself is one of the key elements of the film. Though most of the dialogue is in Hindi, the central character of the senior officer Ayaan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) speaks English at key moments and there is a joke about his use of ‘Fuck’, uttered when he is angered by what he finds. In a confrontation with the senior CBI agent sent to take over the case, Ranjan’s background (private school, time spent in London) and his use of English is criticised, suggesting he doesn’t understand the locals. He is advised to use Hindi but he retaliates by suggesting that the agent speaks Hindi as a second language. (The agent is played by the Tamil actor Nassar.) One of the strengths of the film (and possibly a weakness in appealing to mainstream audiences and non-Indian audiences) is the detailed dialogue exchanges about caste and about politics. I was intrigued to learn that it is an offence to ask someone what caste they belong to. This matters little in the investigation and Ranjan gradually uncovers the the hierarchies that exist in the villages and how they are present among his police officers. I would have been more lost if I hadn’t spent time learning about Scheduled Tribes and Castes in studying other Indian films. One of the key images in the film is the extraordinary sight of a man lowered into an overflowing drain and emerging completely coated with filthy material. I was reminded of Court (India 2014) and Jai Bhim Comrade (India 2011) films which explore the injustices and discrimination suffered by Dalits.
Although the central theme about caste discrimination and corruption in the police and local government is prompted by gang-rape, the violence towards women is not really explored in detail. Ranjan has a partner Aditi who is an activist/journalist but for most of the film she only communicates with him by phone/text though she does join him towards the end of the narrative. There are also a couple of significant female characters in the district who are key to Anjan exposing the corruption. It’s also important that the rapes are presented as being about power – over the women, over all workers and power used to maintain caste discrimination. I don’t think it would have been possible to explore the legal framework around rape in the necessary detail in this film. I hope it will be explored in similar films in the future.
The performances are are all very good. I realised later that I had seen Ayushmann Khurrana’s first film role as the lead in Vicky Donor (India 2012), a very different kind of film, though in its own way a challenge to the mainstream. I’ll try to find some of his other films. I’m not sure about his hair style for Article 15!
The film may have struggled in Bradford but it has made a big impact in India and in other international markets. It had grossed Rs 34 crore (nearly $5million) after just a week on release in India with over $1 million overseas. In the UK it just missed the Top 15 with 55 screens earning £50,000 in the first weekend. I noted that it screened without an Intermission in Bradford, whereas Indian reviews suggest it still had one there. I think an Intermission might have diminished its power, but on the other hand it might have enabled some reflection on what was an intense first half. Reading various reviews, the one that stands out is the Sight and Sound (August 2019) review by Naman Ramachandran who argues that the Indian state was long seen as ‘secular’ but that Narendra Modi’s two election victories have seen the rise of the ‘Hindu state’. In this context, the failure of the state to enforce the rights of all and to in effect allow caste discrimination is a truly terrifying prospect. The film’s resolution suggests the possibility that the community can come together to search for the missing girl but doesn’t promise that such cases won’t arise again.
Official trailer (no English subs but a reasonable representation of the visual style):
Lured is one of the films directed by Douglas Sirk in the 1940s after his arrival from Germany and before he began his long association with Universal. The production was put together by the independent producer Hunt Stromberg and distributed through United Artists in North America and the UK. Although filmed primarily on a studio lot in Hollywood, the film is in many ways a European production. It appears to be a remake of a French original Pièges (1939) directed by Robert Siodmak before he too went to Hollywood. The French film was given an English title of Personal Column and after its release, in the US, Lured was re-titled as Personal Column because the Production Code Office decided that ‘Lured’ was too much like ‘Lurid’! The UK release used Personal Column. Sirk judged that the title change was responsible for the film’s relative failure at the box office after a strong start.
Fortunately, the film has been restored and is now available on Blu-ray (along with A Scandal in Paris (1946), also by Sirk) from the Cohen Group (See the trailer below). It turns out to be highly entertaining and both witty and a genuine noir thriller. It features a lead performance by the fabulous Lucille Ball who has never looked lovelier or sparkled with such vitality and intelligence. She also gets to wear some great costumes. Stromberg surrounded her with an outstanding cast that would not have been out of place in an A List major studio picture. George Sanders, Charles Coburn, Cedric Hardwicke and Boris Karloff are joined by several of the other ‘Brits in Hollywood’. The film is photographed by the great William Daniels and the music is by Michel Michelet from the French original. Production design is by the Russian Nicolai Remisoff and the script was adapted from the French by the Polish émigré Leo Rosten. The narrative is set in London with Sandra (Lucille Ball) down on her luck and working as a ‘taxi dancer’ in a seedy dance hall after her American touring theatre show (she was a dancer) collapsed. When her friend Lucy goes missing after answering a ‘personal ad’ in the newspaper, Sandra goes to the police and finds herself being offered a job as a police detective by Charles Coburn’s Inspector. A serial killer is sending poems in the style of Baudelaire to Scotland Yard and each one signals a young woman’s disappearance. Sandra must answer any personal ads looking for young women, in the hope of ‘luring’ the killer out. Officer Barrett (a nicely-judged performance by George Zucco) is watching her all the time. Eventually, Sandra meets Robert Fleming (George Sanders), a nightclub owner looking to expand his business. She’s already come across him as looking for girls for his club. Is he to be trusted? Sandra takes to him, but are we sure he is kosher?
Sirk liked this production very much. Stromberg gave him a free hand and Sirk appreciated all the talent he had to play with – and in return, Lucille Ball and Charles Coburn relished the chance to play roles in a crime film. Sirk had worked with George Sanders on two previous American pictures and Sanders and Ball make a good couple. Hardwicke is excellent as Fleming’s partner in the club business. The studio sets are beautifully lit and this works as a noirish London serial killer narrative with Gothic overtones, enhanced by the sequence featuring Boris Karloff. I have been able to view both the version on YouTube and the trailer for the restoration/new print on DVD and to watch a version of the film on Talking Pictures TV. This latter is odd in a couple of respects. First, it appears to have lost 5 minutes at the beginning but which turns out to be not particularly a problem. Secondly, and weirdly, all the newspapers, poems and handwritten notes in the film are in French. The film also ends with the traditional French ‘FIN’. I don’t understand this at all. The film does use some stock footage of Piccadilly Circus and a London bus but why substitute the English language close-ups of newspapers etc. with French versions? The only explanation I can think of is that Talking Pictures TV have got hold of a French release copy of the film with the subtitles removed? If anyone knows the real answer, please comment on this post.
None of the quirks of the version I saw on Talking Pictures TV spoiled the film for me. I found it well worth watching and Lucille Ball was wonderful. It wasn’t what I was expecting from Sirk, but it stands up as a stylish Sirkian production.