Curious to know what hardcore Hitch-heads think about this halfway-decent marital comedy, coming in the wake of Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent… but not curious enough to look it up, cuz I got things to do.

Carole Lombard (Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey) asks husband Robert Montgomery (only seen him in The Divorcee) if he’d marry her again and he says no, so when a government clerk shows up and says their marrage was never legal, she kicks him out, gets a job, and starts dating Gene Raymond (Ex-Lady). Through a bunch of contrivances I can’t clearly remember, the Smiths end up back together, because it’s 1941 and any other ending would literally be illegal.

Screenwriter Norman Krasna is a regular at our house: Let’s Make Love, Indiscreet, White Christmas, The Devil and Miss Jones, Fury. I could take or leave the movie, but I think I like Carole Lombard lots, and would consider holding a Lombard Festival to confirm this.

Down-on-his-luck writer Derrick De Marney (Things to Come, Uncle Silas) gets even worse-on-his-luck when he discovers a dead associate on the beach and witnesses assume he murdered her. The cops have got a suspect with motive (she left him inheritance), so no reason to do any further investigating. So Derrick escapes, hides out with police chief’s daughter Nova Pilbeam (who I also liked in The Man Who Knew Too Much), convinces her of his innocence.

Second Hitchcock movie I’ve seen with an old mill – the scene in Foreign Correspondent was better. Close calls as they journey to locate Derrick’s stolen raincoat to prove that it’s not the same raincoat that murdered the woman, or something I dunno, doesn’t matter because in 1937 all men’s raincoats looked the same so it’d hardly be evidence of anything. They flee from Nova’s constable dad (Percy Marmont of Hitch’s Secret Agent) and her horrible aunt (Mary Clare of The Lady Vanishes and the silent non-Hitch The Skin Game), get help from the bum with the raincoat (Edward Rigby of A Canterbury Tale), and finally track down the twitchy, blackfaced (argh) murderer (George Curzon of Q Planes, Jamaica Inn). It’s all a good bit of fun, if not as outstanding as The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps.

Some boring rich vacationers casually befriend a spy who is immediately killed, shot whilst dancing. Their daughter is kidnapped to shut them up. The couple (Leslie Banks, star of The Fire Raisers the same year, and Edna Best of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) sulks back to Britain sans daughter, deciding that if they can’t tell the police, at least they can solve the case themselves. Actually, espionage and adventure isn’t for ladies, so Banks goes off on his own.

Banks and Wakefield go to the dentist:

A sinister dentist is dispatched with his own gas, and I didn’t exactly get the involvement of a basement-dwelling cult (“The Tabernacle of the Sun”), but wooden chairs prove to be good defence against revolvers, and the place gets trashed. Some delightful villains emerge, much more colorful than the heroes (despite an aborted attempt to involve a monocled uncle, Hugh Wakefield of Blithe Spirit, as comic relief). Prominently-chinned Frank Vosper (who’d soon die falling off an ocean liner) and frown-mouthed nurse Cicely Oates would’ve been fine, but Peter Lorre…

DCairns:

Frank Vosper is a good sleazoid bad guy (the only obvious thing Hitch took from Waltzes), but obviously Peter Lorre is the important character here. Although the plot throws out a whole gallery of malefactors, including an old lady with a revolver, a threatening dentist, and an evil hypnotist, Lorre dominates effortlessly, just by constantly making strange. Still sporting the carnival-float head of solid fat he modeled in Lang’s M, and decorated with a skunk-like white stripe and a dueling scar to match Banks’, Lorre as “Abbott” drools cigarette-smoke and apologises to the hero after striking him. He’s good-naturedly contemptuous of his own hired hitman, devoted to his nurse, and prefers to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, but his goal is to plunge the world into war.

Trying to rescue his daughter, Banks gets kidnapped too, caught in the villains’ hideout during a massive police shootout after an Edna Best-thwarted assassination attempt at the Royal Albert Hall. Best then shows up at the shootout and saves her own daughter from Vosper, some 70 minutes after the movie pointedly established her as a celebrated sharpshooter.

Pilbeam and Oates:

No insufferable child actor, daughter Nova Pilbeam is a daughter worth saving, out-acting both of her parents at times. She would return as star of Hitch’s Young and Innocent. This was the first of Hitch’s six Gaumont movies, and Lady Vanishes (more vacationers caught up with spy rings and kidnappings) was the last. Must now watch the ones in between.

I’ve always wanted to watch The Lady Vanishes, and since I found out that it has two recurring characters who appear in two other Criterion-released British wartime comedies, I checked out all three.

The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)

Opens with the fakest model town since Beetlejuice. The DVD extras and interviews make much of how cheaply-made the film was, but after the first scene you never notice it. Snappy, briskly-plotted comedy-mystery with charming leads – at least as good as The 39 Steps.

Our eventually-romantic couple:

Margaret Lockwood meets annoying freewheeling musicologist Michael Redgrave in her hotel, tries to get him kicked out for making too much noise. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to a new hit comic duo Charters and Caldicott – the gimmick is that they’re incredibly British, clueless about foreign customs, but always travelling.

C&C:

They’re all on the same train out of town, along with Linden Travers (title role in No Orchids for Miss Blandish), her lying secret lover Cecil Parker (Ingrid Bergman’s unmemorable brother-in-law in Indiscreet), a not-at-all-sinister surgeon with a neat mustache (Paul Lukas, oscar winner in ’44), travelling magician Doppo and a thoroughly pleasant British woman named Froy (May Whitty, wealthy flower grower in Mrs. Miniver). But then Froy vanishes and Margaret seems to be the only person who remembers her. All the Germans (they’re from Unspecified Euro-Country, but they have nazi-like tendencies and this was the pre-WWII era, so let’s call them German) lie because Froy is a spy and they’ve kidnapped her, and all the Brits lie because they don’t want to get involved. But Margaret finds an ally in the musicologist and they set off to cracking the mystery, which involves fighting the magician through secret compartments and dealing with a fake nun. Trains are diverted, and Charters and Caldicott step up (and the cheater gets killed) in a climactic shootout. It’s all too tense and fun to worry that the central premise and the secret Froy is protecting are all ridiculous – Hitchcock admits so himself in his Truffaut interview.

Lukas with giant poisoned drinks, reminiscent of The Small Back Room:

Hitch’s second-to-last British picture (Jamaica Inn was last) Writer of the original story also did The Spiral Staircase. Remade in the 70’s with Angela Lansbury as Froy. It all reminded me of Shanghai Express, though I guess train dramas were pretty common.

G. O’Brien:

The whole film breathes an air of delight like nothing else in Hitchcock. The central situation—the disappearance of a woman whose very existence is subsequently denied by everyone but the protagonist—may seem to provide the perfect matrix for the kind of paranoid melodrama that would proliferate a few years later, in the forties, in films like Phantom Lady, Gaslight, and My Name Is Julia Ross, but here the dark shadows of conspiracy are countered by a brightness and brilliance of tone almost Mozartean in its equanimity. Most of the time we are too exhilarated to be frightened.

C. Barr:

While the train speeds Iris back toward her loveless marriage, her attempt to solve the mystery of Miss Froy’s disappearance is blocked by the obstinate intransigence of her countrymen, working in unconscious collaboration with the forces of European fascism that have kidnapped her. Clearly, this gave the film an especially potent meaning for the England of 1938, a time when the ruling classes were still working to appease Hitler and a class-stratified country was patently unready to pull together effectively if war should nonetheless become unavoidable.

Night Train to Munich (1940, Carol Reed)

See if this sounds familiar: Margaret Lockwood meets and immediately dislikes a handsome musician who ends up helping her flee from nazis aboard a train. Rex Harrison (Unfaithfully Yours) seems blander than her Lady Vanishes costar at first, but ends up being the highlight of the film. The effects are even cheaper-looking than the previous picture, but the action’s all there and the stakes are higher, war with Germany having started.

Charters didn’t have many options at the German railway book store:

Lockwood is the daughter of a Czech scientist working on some super armor. They flee to England as the nazis invade, hiding out with music salesman Rex, but get easily kidnapped by rival spy Paul Henreid (more dashing here than as Bergman’s husband in Casablanca) and flown to Germany. Not taking this defeat lying down, Rex grabs a nazi uniform, forges himself a letter of introduction with unreadable signature and flies down in to kidnap them back, all ending up aboard the titular train, where Charters and Caldicott are miffed to learn that Britain has declared war on Germany that same day, and so the ever-patriotic comic duo help our heroes escape the train to safety, via a cable-car shootout.

Margaret and Rex:

Defeated Henreid:

P. Kemp:

If its view of the Third Reich now seems frivolous, not to say naive, it should be remembered that it was made, and released, during the period known as the Phony War—before France fell, the British Army narrowly escaped annihilation at Dunkirk, and the Luftwaffe began to rain bombs on British cities. At that time, with the full horrors of Nazism not yet widely known, Hitler and his storm troopers were often treated as figures of fun (other British films of the period, such as Powell and Pressburger’s Contraband, adopt a similar stance). … [Henreid] plays Marsen not unsympathetically, far from the standard ranting Nazi blowhard, and the final shot of him lying wounded and defeated, watching his rival make off with everything, including the girl, even exerts a certain pathos.

Crook’s Tour (1941, John Baxter)

A huge step down from the previous films. It’s not necessarily the fault of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Charters and Caldicott, who now play the leads, foiling an enemy spy plot and even getting the girl. They’ve got a new set of writers and a lesser director, and the whole thing feels cheap and unnecessary, and rarely funny – the silly cartoon music does it no favors.

This time the guys are touring the middle east, and Caldicott (the smaller, mustache-less one) is engaged to marry Charters’ sister Edith, whom they’re meeting in Budapest. Some setup in the Saudi desert where they meet a sheik (Charles Oliver, who had small roles in all three movies) who went to Charters’ school in England, who mentions that he’s protecting the British oil pipeline from German shit-starters. Then a ludicrous mixup with a ridiculous waiter leads them to gain possession of a gramophone record containing secret German plans to steal oil from the Saudis. Caldicott has eyes for Greta Gynt, and nobody seems to think it’s super weird that she’s the live entertainment at the next two cities they visit as well.

I didn’t know this kind of thing was allowed in the 1940’s:

Greta has an owl!

Baddie Ali (Abraham Sofaer of Bhowani Junction) is accidentally killed when Charters pushes him into the “bathroom,” which turns out to be a hole straight into the sea. Edith (Noel Hood, somebody’s aunt in The Curse of Frankenstein) shows up and gets mad that Caldicott is involved in spy-business with Greta. Ali’s partner Rossenger is a terrible spy, so his boss Cyril Gardiner gets involved, promises to kill and torture and all that, but our heroes (including Greta, a British spy all along) manage to escape.

Baddies Ali, Rossenger and double-agent Greta:

I’m aware that there’s another C&C movie, Millions Like Us, directed by Lady Vanishes and Night Train writers Launder and Gilliat. Holding off on watching it for now, since I presume the deluxe Criterion restoration is just around the corner.

“Time edits out as much as it records.”

There’s a story in here about the inevitability of fate, but it takes a long time to get started, then crawls in brief segments towards the end of the film – a story about Hitchcock in 1962 getting summoned to a meeting while filming The Birds and confronting himself in 1980, a few weeks before his death.

But woe unto the viewer who reads that story as the movie’s plot summary, and waits for it to finish unfolding, because all the fun is in the constant interruptions: footage of a Hitchcock body double and a separate voice actor recording their parts for the main story and just goofing around at being Alfred, semi-informative sidetracks about Hitchcock’s films (The Birds, especially), plenty of footage of the Great Man himself taken from trailers, cameos and A.H. Presents episode intros, and Craig Baldwinesque recontextualizations of cold-war stock footage and coffee commercials.

Hichcock: “Television is like the American toaster. You push the button and the same thing pops up every time.”

Inspired by a Borges story and dedicated to body double Ron Burrage, who also played Hitchcock in a mid-90’s Robert Lepage movie. Bonus: always nice to find the source material that a favorite song had sampled – the Books song with the guy saying “there it is, there it is – it’s a man’s face” is from the first live TV broadcast across the Atlantic.

Grimonprez is one of Cinema Scope’s 50 Under 50. B. Steinbruegge: “Double Take gleefully plays with the subconscious, which is fooled by impressionistic scenes that mix deep significance with sensationalism and humor.”

At Powell’s Books in Portland I came across a bunch of reasonably-priced copies of Grimonprez’s companion book Looking For Alfred, but left it behind, figuring it too heavy to carry around in luggage, then forgot to grab it when we decided to ship our books home instead.

M. Peranson in Cinema Scope:

[Grimonprez] uses Hitchcock as a mirror, for both himself and for a period of history. For what was the Cold War if not one long, painful MacGuffin? . . . Grimonprez’s enthusiasm keeps trying to break through the frame: Double Take zips and zaps like the most addictive of television shows. The film is anchored by a chronological recap of the US-USSR Cold War relationship, the time when catastrophic culture was at the point of formation.

Hitch’s quickie, less extravagant follow-up to the great Rebecca. He didn’t quite get the cast he wanted, ending up with Joel McCrea (just before Sullivan’s Travels), the poor man’s Gary Cooper, and Laraine Day (of the Dr. Kildare movie series), the poor man’s Barbara Stanwyck. A wartime spy flick, rather stiff with loose and uninteresting parts but a few great thriller setpieces to balance them out. Katy and I started it for being a TCM Essential, but only I saw the second half.

Joel, Laraine, and returning from Hitch’s Rebecca, Mr. George Sanders:

Take it away, TCM:

Official U.S. policy was still one of strict neutrality. Despite the fact that the British government urged their most famous native, Alfred Hitchcock, to remain in America during this time, the director desperately wanted to contribute to the British war effort so he sought out a property that would allow him to make a pro-Britain statement. The subsequent production, Foreign Correspondent, is the story of an American correspondent in Europe who becomes committed to the fight against fascism during his investigation of a kidnapped Dutch diplomat, a situation that requires him to travel from London to Holland.

I’d say Joel was more committed to following a hot story than to fighting fascism, but he certainly gets caught up in it, leading to a fantastic Great Dictator speech into a radio mic at the end as air-raid sirens howl, possibly the most thrilling last-minute ending to a Hitchcock film I’ve seen.

Van Meer, an Armin Mueller-Stahl-looking diplomat, knows a secret clause within a peace treaty that could help the other side when war breaks out, a macguffin that I never fully understood, but that’s why he’s kidnapped and tortured by baddies. Joel is present for VM’s assassination (my favorite scene, above), but smells a rat because the old man, usually very sharp, doesn’t recognize Joel although they shared a cab the previous day. In fact, a lookalike was murdered so nobody would search for the real VM. Joel follows the killer to a windmill for a fantastic sequence of hide and seek, then escapes from killers sent to his hotel room by first crawling out the window then using a comic room-service gag, is later assigned a bodyguard who tries to push Joel off a high building but falls off himself, and finally I was tuning out and didn’t follow exactly what led to the climactic plane crash, a miniature version of Lifeboat.

I read through D. Cairns’ post on the film looking for a great quote to steal, but they’re all great quotes, so I must instead link to the full article.

“Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn’t give you what you desire; it tells you what to desire.”

With his focus on the “traumatic dimension of the voice… which distorts reality”, I must believe that narrator Slavoj Zizek, with his heavily accented voice, is watching and interpreting slightly different versions of these movies than the ones I have seen. After all, I watch films and he watches “fillums”.

image

A few bits: the three levels of Norman Bates’s house representing the id / ego / superego… the power of the voice represented by Dr. Mabuse… “Music is potentially always a threat”… a look at the intersecting fantasies in Blue Velvet, and the related horror themes of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive.

Calls a scene in The Piano Teacher “the most depressive sexual act in the entire history of cinema.” To think I once showed that movie to my girlfriend’s parents!

Wish Katy had finished watching this with me, could’ve helped defend my position on David Lynch movies. And for stupid cinephiles like myself, who love Lynch movies (and The Piano Teacher, and Eyes Wide Shut, and Blue) but get lost in their images and atmosphere without thinking too hard about their psychological implications, he handily explains the stories and characters from a psych point-of-view.

“I think that flowers should be forbidden to children.”

The movie might teach the rewards of closely analyzing a few great movies instead of trying to watch every potentially great movie. This is a lesson I will not be following. Maybe one day…

I feel so vindicated that he picks Alien Resurrection as a film worth discussing. When oh when will that gem get its due? Only the second of the series (after the Ridley Scott original) to count as a horror film, plus it’s good sci-fi and an innovative sequel/reboot that hasn’t been matched since (well, maybe those Chucky movies).

“All modern films are ultimately films about the possibility or impossibility to make a film.”

He compares Cecil B. DeMille to the Wizard of Oz to the mystery man in Lost Highway.

“In order to understand today’s world, we need cinema, literally. It’s only in cinema that we get that crucial dimension which we are not ready to confront in our reality. If you are looking for what is in reality more real than reality itself, look into the cinematic fiction.”

Man and woman are contestants on game show, go back to her place after. She argues with her ex-husband in the evening, her “sister” in the morning, then her “sister” kills the man with a big knife. Neighbor Reporter sees the killing, bring the cops, they don’t believe her. She hires private eye, then investigates on her own. Finds out woman had siamese twin who died. Gets trapped, brainwashed at woman’s ex-husband’s suspicious psychiatric house, then twin kills doctor/ex-husband. Cops now believe brainwashed reporter, but she won’t help them anymore, only repeats that there was no body because there was no murder.

Amazing that in such a hitchcock-referential movie, IMDB and I can only think of three direct sources:
Rear Window, for the obsessive voyeurism
Rope, for the body in the couch that everyone walks around and sits upon
Psycho for the killing the “main character” 30 minutes in and switching focus to someone new, and for all the psycho-babble.
I guess Sisters just intensifies the sources, makes you all-too-aware of the references if you’ve seen the original movies. Strange then that Sisters itself is getting a remake.

Best visual gag: the cake decorator tool, which in close-up looks like a long dagger dripping blood.

Has that extreme-70’s-interiors look and red red fake blood of the early David Cronenberg movies sometimes. Cronenberg must’ve seen this at some point before making Dead Ringers.

Love the Bernard Herrmann score, love the split screen scenes. Movie’s far from a perfect thriller, but it’s definitely satisfying. Great, great ending (private eye on phone pole still watching the couch at a train station).