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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the second of the Italian police films – poliziotteschi – in a five film package from Arrow. I’ve included some background on Italian police thrillers in my post on the first film in that collection, Savage Three (1975). You might want to read that first to get a more informed perspective on this second film. As we would expect it shares many elements with Savage Three. Once again we have a trio of almost nihilistic killers but this time the trio comprises two men and a woman. The woman, Sylvia (Annarita Grapputo), is just as vicious as the men. The second difference is the social class context. The leader of the trio is Tony (Cesare Barro), the son of a super-rich local ‘businessman’ Enrico Ardenghi who is able to buy local officials and ‘fix’ most problems. I’m not sure about the translation of the Italian title. My own attempt at translating it produces ‘Like Hot/Spicy/Angry Dogs’ – I know only that arrabbiata is a dish which offers a chili and tomato sauce with penne pasta. ‘Rabid’ suggests that the trio are almost crazy with rage. At moments they may be, but not throughout. Arrabbiata is said to be associated with the Lazio region around Rome and I assume that is where the narrative is located. The third member of the trio appears completely underdeveloped as a character. His function seems to be simply an indicator of the sexual tension/excitement of violence in the trio as he watches Sylvia and Tony together.
The local police inspector who hopes to find a way to both arrest Enrico and solve the murders and thefts is Commissario Paulo Muzzi (Jean-Pierre Sabagh aka Piero Santi). He is a younger man than in the first film and is in a relationship with a uniformed female police officer Germana (Paola Senatore). Following the convention of ‘personal contact’ between the Commissario and the principal suspects, Paulo meets both the father and son in various social situations. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the plot (in the moral sense) is that Paulo is prepared to ask Germana to dress as a prostitute in an attempt to entrap Enrico (who regularly visits a favourite sex worker in the local red light district). It is a dangerous ploy. Later Paulo ‘allows’ himself to be seduced by Sylvia. There is more overt sexual activity in this film than Savage Three. The earlier film included some scenes where sexual display was part of setting up violent action but in this film sex is used more as an attractive/exploitative element in its own right. Both the female leads and the three actors playing female victims are stripped for the camera almost as a given. (I understand that the director Mario Imperoli was better known for sex comedies.) The trio also attack a gay couple at one point. There are car chases, a motor racing track, a football ground, Sylvia on a motorbike etc. Overall it is a slicker but much more conventional film than Savage Three. It is presented in Techniscope and runs for nearly 100 minutes. The music seems more generic and less startling than that in Savage Three.
Poliziotteschi developed during the period of violent political unrest in Italy and Arrow presumably linked these two titles because they both present narratives that appear to ignore obvious political questions and instead to focus on the more general idea of a society out of control in which younger characters wilfully commit horrendous crimes. I’ve seen one review which suggests that this is a ‘juvenile delinquent’ picture. I don’t buy this the trio are too old and too privileged. Savage Three has an underlying intelligence and a clever play with metaphors but Like Rabid Dogs seems simply an exploitation film, even if it makes a gesture towards a political dimension in the narrative climax. There is an earlier film by Mario Bava, one of the most celebrated directors of popular Italian cinema, titled Cani arrabbiati (Rabid Dogs, Italy 1974) which is also available from Arrow. I haven’t seen it but it sounds a much more interesting film. Like Rabid Dogs, co-written and directed by Mario Imperoli seems to demonstrate an industrial imperative to exploit a currently successful genre cycle. I’m grateful to be aware of this kind of exploitation cinema as distinctive in a period of cinema history, but it has little to commend it to modern audiences. However, I still think the Arrow box set is a worthwhile venture based on these first two films and the selection of interviews.
Vigil is a 6 x 60 minutes serial broadcast on a weekly basis (i.e. with cliffhangers and no prior access for streaming) after a two parter over the Bank Holiday weekend. It has been promoted as being from the production company behind Line of Duty and is running in BBC1’s primetime Sunday 9.00 pm slot. The production company World Productions, founded by Tony Garnett in 1990, is one of the most successful in UK TV and now owned by ITV, but its shows appear on both ITV and BBC channels. The basic premise for the show is that a submariner dies under suspicious circumstances while serving on ‘Vigil’, one of the UK’s four nuclear submarines carrying missiles with nuclear warheads at all times. Because the ‘boat’ is still in British territorial waters, a police officer from the local force for the submarine base is transported to the submarine to investigate. Meanwhile a local trawler has been dragged beneath the waves by a submarine. Is ‘Vigil’ at fault or is there a second submarine in the same waters?
I find this serial particularly gripping for several reasons. It is an intriguing meld of different genre repertoires. It isn’t purely a police procedural because of the compromised status of the investigator DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones). The narrative possibilities of the police procedural are compromised by the naval military procedures and especially the strict rules about actions and behaviour on a nuclear submarine. There is a long tradition of generic narratives concerning an investigator who finds himself/herself restricted by the codes of conduct in an isolated community. But this turns out to be a complex case for DCI Silva and much of the legwork ashore has to be carried out by her DC, Kirsten Longacre. The police-Navy confrontation is further complicated by the appearance of MI5 whose interest might be prompted by several different aspects of the case. We are familiar to some extent with the idea of different branches of the police forces in the UK coming into conflict from Line of Duty and other police procedurals, but MI5 interest suggests another kind of narrative. Again there is a long tradition in UK film and TV of ‘secret service’ types interfering with all kinds of individuals who might threaten the ‘national interest’ (a highly dubious concept at best). Finally, in all contemporary thrillers we seem to have a personal story involving the lead investigator and ‘Vigil’ is no exception. From the opening credits I felt that ‘Vigil’ explores the playbook of The Bridge with a similar sounding opening song, aerial and long shot photography and trouble for its prime investigator.
So far we been offered three of the six episodes and without spoiling the narrative, we appear to have what might be termed a ‘peeling the onion’ narrative – everything that Amy and Kirsten discover seems to lead to a new layer of meaning and another possible narrative. Unlike with many of the recent crime fictions on TV I find myself gripped by the tension but not completely bewildered by the narrative. I’m impressed by the setting in and around a nuclear base meant to resemble the real base at Faslane, West of Glasgow on Gare Loch. Episode 3 ends with a chase on the streets of Central Glasgow with its steep inclines and the narrative feels securely located – unlike the the more generic scenes in Line of Duty, shot in Belfast but seemingly meant to be somewhere else. The sense of a recognisable environment carries through to the casting and I’m enjoying seeing Gary Lewis with his wonderful voice as the Detective Superintendent and Rose Leslie as DC Longacre, both highly convincing as are the navy personnel with Stephen Dillane as the Rear Admiral in charge back at the base. Suranne Jones is one of UK TV’s top actors now, vying with Sarah Lancashire for the best lead roles. Amy’s back story, emerging in flashbacks, some long and others literally ‘flashes’, will perhaps eventually reveal how she comes to be in the West of Scotland.
Vigil is written by a small team of writers with Tom Edge listed as ‘creator’ as well as lead writer. Edge has broad TV drama experience and also wrote the ‘part biopic’ Judy (UK 2019). There is a different director for the second three episodes and it will be interesting to see if there is any noticeable change in style. There appear to be two cinematographers as well. The serial is presented in a 2.00:1 aspect ratio, the kind of format I first recognised in ‘Nordic Noir’ productions (though they might have been slightly wider still). Vigil opens with dramatic shots at sea and the wider format gives it a filmic sense of expansiveness. This still seems quite daring for BBC1 (as distinct from BBC2 or BBC4 where different aspect ratios are more common). I should note that as might be expected, viewers with a naval background and especially submariners have criticised all the details of life underwater. I don’t think that authentic detail in what is a difficult environment to represent on screen without very expensive sets is a major consideration here. Instead, the three repertoires of genre elements and how they are used is the central concern. This has been the most watched TV drama of 2021 so far with 10.2 million watching the first episode on broadcast and catch-up.
I’ve been fully engaged for three episodes and I’m hopeful the second half will continue in the same vein. I you haven’t tried it yet, the first three episodes are on iPlayer in the UK.
A couple of months ago, Arrow released a Blu-ray entitled ‘Years of Lead, Five Classic Italian Crime Thrillers 1973-77’. The box set also includes extensive extra material including introductions, substantial interviews and a printed booklet. In doing so they pleased a significant group of fans of poliziotteschi, the term generally used by anglophone audiences to cover this mode of Italian popular cinema. They also provided film teachers and scholars with some useful study texts raising a whole set of questions about popular cinema more generally. In this post I want to explore some of the issues these kinds of films raise, using just one of the titles that I’ll discuss in some detail.
Italian popular cinema developed rapidly from the late 1950s onwards fuelling a growth in audiences that saw Italy move up the league table of European film productions and cinema admissions. In addition, the films produced were exported to other countries to a much greater extent than previously, sometimes because the films themselves were co-productions, especially with France, but also with West Germany and Spain – the Italian crime films are sometimes discussed as part of a group of ‘Eurocrime films’. Further, the stylistic and thematic innovations of these films began to influence productions elsewhere. The best-known example of this in anglophone cinema was the popularity of so-called ‘spaghetti Westerns’ and the impact some of these films had on Hollywood. The American connection was very important since it was the ‘runaway productions’ set up by independent Hollywood producers in Italy from the 1950s that was one of the factors in the growth of Italian popular film production. Italian Westerns often used American actors and developed ideas that challenged the Hollywood conception of the Western genre. But the cycle of European Westerns began to run down from the late 1960s and producers shifted to crime thrillers.
Crime films have long been popular in all cinemas and production contexts. The films that emerged in Italy from the late 1960s had three elements that made them distinctive. First, possibly as part of the development of the co-production trend, they can be seen as linked to the French crime film, the polar. Second, they were influenced by changes in the Hollywood crime film in the same period with the drive towards greater realism and the decline of the ‘production code’ which loosened restraints on the depiction of violence, sex and drug use etc. Third, they engaged with the chaos and confusion in Italian public life and particularly in political violence. This was the period which became known as the ‘Years of Lead’ with high profile acts of political violence committed by both left-wing and right-wing groups as well as an upsurge in Mafia activity and a general breakdown in other aspects of social life. The period lasted from the late 1960s to the late 1980s.
Savage Three is an interesting example of a poliziottesco, partly because it questions the suggestion that ‘political violence’ might be the cause of problems with policing during the 1970s – or rather what that relationship might be about. The plot concerns a group of three young men who commit a series of crimes with escalating amounts of violence. The police authorities assume that the crimes must be committed for political reasons. Because we see the actions from the criminals’ perspective this seems ludicrous, but the clues the police find are open to interpretation. The inciting incident for the narrative is literally ‘inciting’ because the three men at a football game in Turin are involved in starting a riot in the stands and during the mêlée that ensues one man is killed and many others injured. Leaving the stadium early without getting further involved, the trio steal a car (even though they have one parked outside the stadium) and two further acts follow soon after, one leading to shocking violence.
The three men work in a new glass-walled building housing a computer facility. 1975 is very early in the use of computers in business, administration and industry and this is a large office building filled with tape, disc and punched card machines. These are educated young men and the dominant character Oviedo is played by Joe Dallesandro, the star of the Andy Warhol-produced films, Flesh (1968) and Trash (1970), both directed by Paul Morrissey. Dallesandro spent most of the 1970s appearing in Italian and French productions. In Savage Three, Oviedo is married to Alba (Martine Brochard) a junior doctor obsessed with her career and with little time for her husband. The youngest member of the trio, Pepe (Guido De Carli) is a Southern migrant and the whole North-South divide is an issue in the film. I was reminded of the Luchino Visconti film Rocco and His Brothers (Italy 1960). The migration from the South was a real social issue in the 1960s and 1970s in Italy but the prejudices are still there to some extent in Italian narratives today. The third member of the trio is Giacomo (Gianfranco De Grassi ) who says little – which may make him the most dangerous of the three. The narrative of Savage Three hurtles along in its relatively short 85 minutes but what structures it in the end is the relationship between Oviedo and Commissario Santagà (Enrico Maria Salerno), a disgraced older detective who has been taken off the the major crime squad. He is the one who doesn’t believe the political connection and in his own investigation begins to explore what he calls ‘ecological crime’. By this he means crimes that arise from everyday incidents and general frustrations with everyday life rather than the traditional motives of greed, sex, revenge etc. Such crimes are much more difficult to investigate, but here we see the influence of the polar in which it is often important that the police detective and the criminal know each other and develop a relationship. Commissario Santagà meets Oviedo when the police teams visit the computer facility to learn what computers might offer to police investigations. The Commissario persuades Oviedo to help him in what seems an innocent experiment to predict winning lottery numbers and through this process he learns a little about Oviedo’s behaviour.
Savage Three is classified as an ’18’ certificate package on Blu-ray. The film was not released in the UK in the 1970s. There is some censorship of ‘animal cruelty’ images involving mice in a laboratory at the computer facility, but otherwise the film is uncut. There are violent murders and one involves rape. Perhaps the violence is made even more shocking because much of it is seemingly random, carried out opportunistically and almost playfully. The film also includes squealing tyres and cars being driven recklessly. On the other hand, apart from the rape and other violence towards women, there is less overt sexual activity than might be expected in this kind of exploitation film. The Blu-ray (I rented two films on one disc) includes a long interview with writer-director Vittorio Salerno, the younger brother of Enrico, and Martine Brochard. Salerno explains that after the 1973-4 oil crisis, budgets for Italian films were much lower and he helped to set up a filmmakers’ co-op venture which eventually linked up with the big distributor Titanus in an attempt to secure future work for filmmakers. Unfortunately Titanus didn’t like any of the story ideas the co-op put to them until Salerno turned to an unproduced script by Ernesto Gastaldi. Everyone liked this and Salerno then adapted it, drawing on his own archive research that unearthed the real-life crimes which appear so outrageous in the finished film.
Although in the UK we saw relatively few of these ‘Eurocrime films’, they were widely released elsewhere and there is considerable fan interest in the films, resulting in lists of titles compiled and presented on YouTube and Letterboxd. Another ‘way in’ to the films is to look for specific actors, directors and producers. For Savage Three the key may be Enrico Maria Salerno who was clearly a major star of the period. He also played a Commissario investigating a serial killer in Dario Argento’s first film The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (Italy 1970). This film is usually classified as a giallo, a ‘mystery horror’, but the links to Eurocrime are evident. Argento is perhaps the director who provided me with a way into these films via Profundo Rosso (1975) and Suspiria (1977) which I actually watched in the 1990s. I was struck by the music score of Suspiria featuring the band Goblin and I note that Savage Three features some heavy rock music as part of the score by Franco Campanino. The ‘theme song’ at the beginning and end of the film appears to be a track titled ‘Boiling Mud’ which translates into Italian as the film’s title Fango bollente. Perhaps this refers to the state of society that can throw up this seemingly random violence?
A further aspect of Italian popular cinema is discussed in my posting on Piero Vivarelli, Life as a B Movie (Italy 2019) and there has been a limited but important amount of academic work on Italian popular films in Anglo-American film studies. I think it could be argued that in the 1960s and 1970s these films were of considerable importance. They provided employment for a large number of filmmakers and a constant stream of popular films for audiences within Italy as well as across many other film territories in Europe and further afield. Their influence on Anglo-American cinema was profound and this period saw dubbed films showing in cinemas in the UK and the US to a much greater extent than before or since. They reversed a trend in which European actors always travelled to the UK or US to get work and for a brief period, a significant number of anglophone actors worked consistently in Europe. In terms of the genres involved, these Italian-led productions introduced innovations in both the themes and the presentations of familiar narrative forms. They challenged previous censorship regimes and they also challenged ideas about ‘exploitation pictures’. Amongst the hundreds of titles, significant numbers of films stood out as worthy of more detailed study by fans and scholars. Christopher Frayling’s magisterial work on Italian Westerns is just one example of the kinds of possible scholarly work (Spaghetti Westerns, Routledge Kegan Paul, 1981). It also became apparent that the dividing line between ‘popular’ and ‘arthouse’ Italian cinema was increasingly blurred in this period, allowing several Italian directors to emerge as international figures such as the horror/giallo directors Mario Bava and Dario Argento and others like Sergio Leone who worked across several genres. In industrial terms, the openings created by the popularity of Italian films also benefited established directors such as Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini and Bernardo Bertolucci who were able to find bigger budgets and more access to markets. In short, Italian popular films in the 1960s and 1970s helped to make cinema more ‘international’.
I welcome the opportunity to see Savage Three in its original Italian presentation. I found it was well-made and intelligent. The central idea of a narrative in which a general shift in society values and working practices can be explored through a familiar genre structure is intriguing and, for me, successful. I have seen a few more related productions which I hope to write about in future. I hesitate to comment on the representation issues in these films because I haven’t yet seen enough. The sexism of the films and of Italian society more generally is one possible line of enquiry. I do find that the presentation of stunningly beautiful/sexually attractive women is a feature of Italian cinema from the 1930s up until the present (e.g. in the Inspector Montalbano films shown on UK TV). Whether the female characters in these popular genre films have more or less agency than their sisters in Anglo-American productions is open to question. Ovidio’s wife Alba is a career woman whose job and her aspiration to succeed entails her involvement in the corruption rife in Italian public life. This is another aspect of the ‘political’ in the film. The sexual violence portrayed in this film would have been controversial in 1975 and is perhaps even more so now. Nevertheless, on the basis of Savage Three, I would recommend the Arrow box set as a useful introduction to a significant genre within Italian popular cinema. Here’s the Arrow Trailer for the box set:
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.