Alfred Hitchcock’s films made in the UK in the 1930s have tended to be overshadowed to some extent by his later work in Hollywood, even if some of the titles have gained a high profile after repeated UK TV screenings. The key text for film scholars is Charles Barr’s English Hitchcock (Movie Books, Cameron and Hollis, 1999). Young and Innocent is seen as the odd one out in the series of six successful thrillers Hitchcock made between 1934 and 1938. It is the only one that doesn’t focus on some form of political intrigue. On the other hand it does share elements with several of the other films. What marks it out for me is the terrific performance by Nova Pilbeam, the ‘young’ of the title, who was still only 17 when shooting began. The original title for the film, which was subsequently used for the North American release was The Girl Was Young – a dreadful title in my view and quite misleading. Like many Hitchcock films this one was based on a novel. A Shilling for Candles (1936) was one of the first crime fiction novels by Josephine Tey. She later became a celebrated writer of crime fiction as well as plays and other novels. Barr is quite scathing about the novel and it seems that most of it was changed by Charles Bennett and the other writers who worked on the screenplay. Nova Pilbeam’s character is elevated from a minor character to joint lead.
The plot is instantly recognisable because of resemblances to The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935). Pilbeam is Erica, the daughter of the Chief Constable of a South of England county police force, who by chance meets a young man, Robert Tinsdall (Derrick De Marney), who has been arrested on suspicion of the murder of a woman on a nearby secluded beach. He protests his innocence (thus the second half of the title) and events lead Erica to help him escape. Along the way they fall for each other but they have no time to get well acquainted as the police are chasing them and Robert must find a vital piece of evidence – and this might in turn help the couple find the murderer. The film is entertaining and engaging because of the skills of Hitchcock and his team which includes future Ealing director Charles Frend as editor, Bernard Knowles as DoP and the great Alfred Junge as art director. Pilbeam’s future husband Pen Tennyson (also to become an Ealing director) is listed as Assistant Director. But I think that a great deal of the vitality of the film comes from the pairing of Pilbeam and De Marney. I was struck by something about Nova Pilbeam that reminded me of Keira Knightley’s early lead roles in Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and Pirates of the Caribbean (2003). De Marney was actually aged 30 when filming began but, as Barr suggests, he seems younger. They seem a very ‘modern’ couple for the 1930s.
Unfortunately, the vitality of the film is let down at various times by the cheap studio production work. This was a Gaumont-British production, based initially at Shepherd’s Bush, but also at Pinewood. Barr reports a suggestion that the leading cast members might have been on location only rarely since in the outdoor scenes the characters are mainly seen in long shot. Given the results that Junge was able to achieve ten years later in his evocation of the Himalayas filmed in Surrey for Black Narcissus, I do wonder what he made of the model work, especially in the case of the railway station which becomes the location for an exciting chase sequence. The film’s pre-publicity made a lot of noise about the use of location work and Hitchcock generally uses it well. There is also a striking crane shot on the large studio set representing the dancefloor of the ‘Grand Hotel’ where the narrative climax plays out (in a manner something like the music hall ending of The 39 Steps). This sequence is notable for the band whose members are ‘blacked up’ even though they are dressed in lounge suits rather than minstrel outfits. The jazz band is quite good and I was reminded of the best Jessie Matthews musicals of the 1930s. British cinema could match Hollywood at times, but the lack of resources meant that something often had to be skimped. The extras on the DVD from Network include an intro by Charles Barr and a short documentary on Hitchcock. One of the contributors suggests that what attracted Hitchcock to move to Hollywood was the prospect of the resources to do all the things his imagination could dream up.
It’s striking how strong Nova Pilbeam’s performance is. For one so young she commands her scenes like a much more experienced actor. Wikipedia suggests that David Selznik, who would eventually sign a deal with Hitchcock in 1939, was very impressed with Pilbeam and wanted to sign her as well but her agent thought a five-year contract was not appropriate. She didn’t go to Hollywood and instead made several more British pictures as well as working in the theatre. Her career ended in 1950 when she was still a young woman. The decision not to go to America (a similar decision was made by Jessie Matthews, for similar ‘professional reasons’) was later faced by bigger stars such as Deborah Kerr and Jean Simmons, who both went and made a success of the move. Erica does seem to me to be a character who has equal ‘agency’ with Robert. It would be interesting to compare the role with that played by Margaret Lockwood in The Lady Vanishes (1938).
I was surprised to discover that it is Donald Spoto in his Hitchcock biography The Dark Side of Genius, Frederick Muller 1983, who gives a more interesting reading of the film than Charles Barr. Barr focuses mainly on narrative structure but Spoto offers various observations that convince me that his general argument is sound. His basic point is that the film is essentially a gentle comic melodrama, but that it offers ‘markers’ for some of the dramatic highlights of later Hitchcock triumphs and that ideas about illusion and not ‘seeing’ clearly are woven throughout the narrative. So Robert escapes police custody by wearing a pair of spectacles with thick lenses through which he can barely see but which form a good disguise. At the end of the film, the murderer is ‘unmasked’ by the tic he suffers which makes him blink uncontrollably. Spoto reports Hitchcock stating that he placed a children’s birthday party at the centre of the story to act as a symbol as well as a narrative device. The children blindfold a character which allows the central couple to escape the party. This ‘play acting’ is matched by a couple of occasions when characters don a uniform or a costume to pass as somebody else. In terms of ‘markers’ the film includes some interesting set pieces carefully shot on sound stages that perhaps suggest scenes in later Hollywood films like North by Northwest (1959) and The Birds (1962). If you haven’t seen it, Young and Innocent is well worth tracking down. I watched it on Network’s DVD, a Special Edition as part of ‘Hitchcock: The British Years’.
Black is a difficult film to discuss because there are several contradictions in what it presents. On the plus side this is the first film I’ve seen which presents second generation immigrant communities in Belgium – and in particular Maghrebi and West/Central African teenagers. Also a plus, the film is lively with good technical credits and strong performances mainly from non-professionals. But on the down side the film has at least one scene of sexual violence which seemed to me to be exploitative and degrading – and not necessary to show in this way. As a consequence, the film received a ’16’ certificate in Belgium and an ’18’ in the UK (though it may be that the language – in translation – was enough to make it an 18 for BBFC). This effectively excludes much of the target audience. The film is based on two popular ‘young adult’ novels in Flemish (Black/Back by Dirk Bracke) and the official film website includes an Education Pack (in French and Flemish). I wouldn’t want to use the film with 17 year-old students because of the rape scene. My second major concern is that the two groups of young people in opposing street gangs are represented quite differently.
The ‘1080s’ (named for the postcode of Molenbeek, the Brussels district at the centre of recent fears about terrorism) are petty criminals, snatching bags from cars and pedestrians. They are mainly Moroccan youths. The ‘Black Bronx’ are heavily typed as drug dealers and misogynists with few redeeming features. They are mainly Congolese and are also involved in a turf war with another similar gang, The Black Panthers. It seems an odd approach for Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, the two Maghrebi filmmakers, the only North Africans in their art school. They seem to be arguing that both gangs are ferocious in defence of their identity because there is no future for them in ‘white Belgium’, but they load the most negative traits onto the Congolese.
My frustration with the film’s UK release is that it was heavily promoted via a feature article in the Guardian as an update/commentary on the two French films La haine (1995) and Girlhood (2014) and a full-page ad in the Guardian G2. But the film opened in only four arthouse cinemas alongside a VOD release. There seemed to be a confusion over what kind of film it might be. The filmmakers also quote other films as reference points including City of God (Brazil 2002) and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) – and their admiration for Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee. They make it clear that they are not interested in arthouse cinema and indeed they are now in Hollywood working on Beverly Hills Cop 4.
15 year-old Mavela is the new kid in ‘The Black Bronx’, arrested for the first time for shoplifting. In the police station she meets 16 year-old Marwan from the ‘1080s’. Despite warnings from other gang members the two meet up later and a relationship ensues. Mavela is gradually sucked into the worst extremes of her gang’s behaviour and it is clear that eventually the couple will be found out and that the two gangs will clash with Marwan and Mavela at the centre.
The bare outline above excludes various sub-plots to avoid too many spoilers. The main narrative is very familiar. It doesn’t have the subtlety of La haine nor the visual audacity and wit of Girlhood (although it has a strong music track and a camera style that shows off Brussels very well). I laughed out loud at one brief sequence of three young women dancing in the sunlight coming through the windows of a high-rise – a seeming ‘borrow’ from La haine without any narrative function. The only other La haine link I could see is Mina, the Maghrebi police officer who knows Marwan just as Samir knows the young men in La haine. Unlike the ’empowering’ young women of Girlhood, the young women in Black are treated (very badly) as sexual objects by the male gang members. (The young men in Girlhood are not angels but they are not as brutal as those depicted in Black.)
The script by the directors and by the more experienced Hans Herbots and Nele Meirhaeghe struggles to find motivations for the characters. This is particularly true of the scenes with Mavela’s mother. There is a complicated set of relationships involving mother and daughter and another gang member, Mavela’s cousin, which seems to be little more than a plot device, though there is also something about the sociology of the community in there as well. At one point we see ‘X’, the leader of the Black Bronx, watching a TV documentary seemingly about the civil wars in the Congo. Was he a child soldier in those wars? Does this explain his brutality?
The local issue that does appear – and which is articulated by the directors – is the sense of divided identities in Belgium. Since the decline of the industries of the Meuse valley in Francophone Wallonia, Flemish Belgium to the north has become the dominant and wealthier half of the country. Brussels is an island between the two language cultures. It is predominantly Francophone, yet located within the Flemish region. In the film, both Marwan and Mavela see Flemish as the ‘wrong’ language. They use it only to curse and the only Flemish-speaking characters are the white cops who the kids see as racist. What is surprising is that much of the funding comes from Flemish funds and the filmmaker’s mentors are also from the Flemish industry. Fallah himself comes from Antwerp and suggests that he experienced racism from as a teenager. Black‘s narrative generates its conflict by pushing at the conflict between the Moroccans and the Congolese – even though as the filmmakers suggest, such conflicts are relatively rare. It’s worth pointing out that in La haine, the three young men are together and opposed to the police and local Nazis. In Girlhood, the focus is entirely on African-Caribbean communities with no mention of Maghrebi youth. These two films are by white directors, wary perhaps of getting involved in inter-racial conflicts. Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah have more experience of the relationships between their young characters but I do wonder if they have thought through how the film will be read. They have skilfully worked the conventions of a genre movie as a calling card for Hollywood but that’s perhaps as far as it goes.
None of the films discussed here enter into a discourse about religion as such, nor links to ‘terrorism’ in the current context and that’s probably a good thing, especially in the case of Black. I’m glad I saw the film and I’m pleased that young Maghrebis in Belgium are able to make a genre film with high levels of skill and visual imagination (Black is actually their second film after the ‘thriller’ Image in 2014). Perhaps we’ll now see more – and more nuanced – films based in the Brussels? One aspect of Black that I would like to know more about is the locations. The Moroccan gang is in Molenbeek and this is characterised by familiar high rises. The Brussels district of Matonge is often quoted as the centre for Congolese Belgians but this is an ‘inner city area’ close to the city centre with relatively few Congolese residents. The Black Bronx are often seen arriving in the centre by train – as in La haine – implying their estate is farther out. The area in which Mavela lives has very distinct architecture which I haven’t been able to place. Anyone know where it is?
Here’s the official Black trailer (which seems very dark to me – it looked fine in the cinema). It’s available on VOD from iTunes, Virgin and Sky and in various (mostly London) cinemas over the next few weeks:
This is the third film by Feng Xiaogang that we’ve reviewed on the blog and it stands up well alongside Assembly and Aftershock. Like those films, it is a ‘big’ genre film with major stars and an ‘uplifting’ tone. In some ways it proves to be the closest to a Hollywood film that I have seen from East Asia – yet there are elements in the film that are distinctively Chinese and which I’m not sure I fully appreciate.
I think that generically this is a romance thriller crossed with a heist movie (there is no heist as such, but many of the elements of a film like Ocean’s 11 are utilised), mainly staged on a long train journey from Tibet back towards Beijing. The romance couple are a pair of consummate con-artists and skilled thieves played by the major stars Andy Lau (as Wang Bo) from Hong Kong and Rene Liu (as Wang Li) from Taiwan. (Lau and Liu are both pop stars too – of ‘Cantopop and Mandopop’ respectively.) At the beginning of the narrative they are in the process of falling out after another successful con that has won them a BMW. She wants to quit and focus on her pregnancy, he wants to carry on. Her decision is confirmed by a visit to a Buddhist monastery, after which she befriends a young man returning to his village in the East with his savings from 5 years of work. He naïvely believes that there are no thieves in China and indeed announces on the train that he is carrying the money. She decides to try to protect him from thieves – and this probably means thwarting her erstwhile partner. On the train there are various characters in disguise including a gang of thieves led by ‘Dr Li’ (played by the famous Chinese actor Ge You) and a police detective. The main part of the film becomes a four-way battle of wits and trickery plus spectacular action between Andy Lau’s character, the thieves and the police with Rene Liu attempting to protect the hapless young man and his money.
I love train movies and this one includes many of the familiar elements of chases through corridors, dining car, private rooms etc., false identities, overheard conversations etc. It also introduces an extra dimension utilising the space beneath the carriage roof and the ceiling of individual compartments – and of course the carriage roof itself as the site for fights. The train sequences feature several confrontations which Feng films in the exaggerated style familiar from martial arts films but here they are performed in the confined spaces of the train. These scenes – as well as the ‘Scope photography of the train in the landscapes of Western China – provide the spectacle in the film. However the real story of the film is the relationship between the central couple and the promotion of a kind of family solidarity which is constructed via the warring ‘parents’, the pregnancy and the attempt to protect the boy (he’s a young 21) and his money. This makes the film recognisably a family drama to match Aftershock. Lau and Liu work well together for me. Both stars are in their 40s and I found their squabbling and occasional glimpses of real feelings to be believable.
The ideological work of the film includes an attempt to portray Tibet as an integral part of China and an enthusiastic celebration of the new railway line as a prestige achievement. The crime scenario draws on what I understand to be a common occurrence of theft on Chinese Railways. The marked difference from Hollywood action films perhaps comes in the relatively slow pace of the beginning and end sequences of the narrative and the use of music – classical strings rather than the more rock/techno-flavoured scores of American action films.
Feng should be better-known in the West. His films are an antidote to the more scholarly action/costume films of Zhang Yimou or the indie/arthouse style of Sixth Generation directors such as Jia Zhangke. It is Feng’s films which are likely to carry elements of Chinese popular culture into the future global blockbuster films. The description of him as ‘the Steven Spielberg of China’ has more than a grain of plausibility in reference to representations of a kind of middle-class Chinese life (however that class status is achieved).
(There is one mystery. IMdb lists the Chinese version as a few minutes shorter than the ‘International’ version – yet the Chinese version includes a pre-credit sequence showing the con by which they acquire the BMW. Does anyone know what was cut from the rest of the film for the Chinese release?)