Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Title: The Man Who Knew Too Much
Year: 1934
Studio: Gaumont-British Picture corporation Ltd
Screenplay: Charles Bennett, D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, Edwin Greenwood,A.R. Rawlinson & Emlyn Williams.
Source Material: Although an original screenplay, the title was acquired from a collection of stories by G.K. Chesterton.
Running Time: 72 minutes
A black & white picture

Thursday 23rd September, 2:30pm
I thought, seeing as I am taking some annual leave this week and I'll be away for the majority of the weekend visiting friends, I ought to plunge into the next movie whilst I have the time. I spent this morning making a delicious dark fruit cake which is cooling on a wire rack beside me as I type. It smells wonderful, even if I say so myself. It is near impossible to buy decent cakes in stores today - everything tastes so artificial - so it is always best to make one's own.
So, as the cake began its cooling down period, I positioned myself on the settee wearing my new running shoes - gosh, they do look smart, I am sure they'll look even better when I am doing exercise - and watched The Man Who Knew Too Much...
This is where Hitchcock really gets into his stride.

Bob Lawrence - Leslie Banks
Jill Lawrence - Edna Best
Abott - Peter Lorre
Ramon - Frank Vosper
Clive - Hugh Wakefield
Betty Lawrence - Nova Pilbeam
Louis Bernard - Pierre Fresnay
Nurse Agnes - Cicely Oates
Binstead - D.A. Clarke Smith
Gibson - George Curzon

During a family holiday in St Moritz, Switzerland, The Lawrence family befriend a skier named Louis Bernard. Little do they know he is a member of Special Services. they are all staying at the same hotel where they are enjoying a variety of winter sports. Also at the hotel are some gentlemen - Abbott and Vosper -with whom they get on amiably.
However, one night whilst dancing after dinner, Bernard is shot - with his dying breaths, he tells Jill a cryptic message and the family are plunged into a deadly conspiracy. Louis' message leads Bill to the dead man's hotel room where he finds a note hidden within the handle of a shaving brush. It has a symbol at the top that looks like a rising sun and the note reads:


The police are called in and everyone is being questioned about the events including Jill and Bob Lawrence who later receive an anonymous note which reads:

Say nothing of what you found or you will never see your child again.

Jill faints at this and Bill manages to tear away the note and burns it in the fireplace before the authorities can see it.
They return to England without their daughter and the police are already on the trail, although Bob refuses to admit his daughter, Betty, has been kidnapped.
Bob decides he is going to take matters into his own hands, despite an attempted intervention by a man named Gibson from the consulate.
Bob and his friend Clive follow the clues themselves and come across George Barbor's Dentistry. When inside, Bob manages to overpower the crooked dentist and poses as the professional so he can overhear details from the rest of the gang.
He and Clive then discover the Tabernacle of the Sun whose emblem matches the one on the note found in Louis' shaving brush. Inside the chapel, they are discovered by the gang of crooks and a fight breaks out with chairs being flung.
Clive gets away and is able to telephone Jill and warn her about the assassination at the Royal Albert Hall. Bob, however, is held captive.
The plan is for Ramon to shoot Ropa, the foreign statesman, at a specific point during a concert - at a point where the music is loud enough to cover the sound of a gunshot.
Jill arrives and Ramon palms her the brooch that Betty had been wearing. During the concert, Jill is petrified and she sees Ramon hiding in one of the boxes and when the moment comes, she screams. This is enough for him to miss his target slightly - only he is not aware of the fact until he returns to the gang's hideout and they hear the news on the radio.
Thanks to quick thinking from Jill, the police are hot on the heels of Ramon and soon have the hideout surrounded (with Betty and Bob still held captive inside). There is a phenomenal shoot-out and many lives are lost on both side. Bob helps Betty escape through a window leading to the roof, but he is wounded by one of Ramon's shots. Ramon then follows Betty out onto the rooftop. A crowd has formed below and no one dares to fire in case they hit Betty instead of Ramon - however, Jill grabs a rifle and uses her own skills to perfect use and protects her daughter with one perfect shot. Ramon plunges to the street below.
The police storm the building. Everyone is fatally wounded except for Bob and Abbott who is hiding behind a door. However, his pocket-watch gives his position away and he is killed. The Lawrence family are finally reunited and the drama is over.
The End.

Great Lines
Gibson's reasoning to Bob's unwillingness to co-operate due to his daughter's involvement is perfect:

Bob Lawrence: "'s her (Betty's) life against this fellow Ropa's. Why should we care if some foreign statesman we've never even heard of were assassinated?"

Gibson: "Tell me, in June 1914, had you ever heard of a place called Sarajevo? Course you hadn't. I doubt you'd even heard of the Arch Duke Ferdinand. But in a months time, because a man you'd never heard of killed another man you'd never heard of in a place you'd never heard of, this country was at war!"

Hitchcock must have liked jigsaws. He once told of how he came to make this film. He wanted to do a picture that involved winter sports, the East End of London, a chapel and the Albert Hall. All he had to do was build a story with those pieces. Well, it worked. It certainly makes a complete picture.

My main concern about this film is, ironically, a lack of concern - from Leslie Banks' character. Here he is, returning to London after a horrible ending to a family holiday sans child and he broaches the subject with all the dour demeanour of a vaudeville comedian. There doesn't seem to be the slightest ounce of desperation (unlike Jimmy Stewart's portrayal in the remake). Don't get me wrong, I think there are some superb performances here, particularly from Nova Pilbeam, Peter Lorre and Edna Best, but Leslie is too cavalier about the whole thing - and frankly, I blame Hitch - love him as I do. I think his love of black comedy is slightly misplaced when it is concerning the abduction of a child.
Other placements of comedy work well, during the (slightly ludicrous) chair-fight scene (the chairs were made of balsa wood) one of the female members of the gang plays at the organ so no one could hear the noises from outside. That's very Hitchcock!

Two films ago, I mentioned how I liked Hitch's way of blurring the screen when seeing something from the viewpoint of someone crying - he did it in Rich and Strange and he does it again here when Jill is at the Albert Hall anticipating the crescendo and worrying about her daughter. It's a very effective technique.

I do love the threads which weave their way through the narrative and actually pay off at the end. Little things like the brooch Betty receives from her mother at the beginning eventually becomes a symbol of her capture and the hold the captors have over Jill. The chiming of Abbott's watch signals his presence three times, innocently initially, but then ominously midway through the movie and tragically (for him) at the denouement.
Finally, the clay-pigeon shooting match at the start is not merely a scene for witty banter and mock rivalry, it foreshadows the ironic death of Ramon who is shot down from the rooftop by expert-shot Jill.

Although the film is expertly constructed on many levels, I find the big shoot-out scene goes on for just a minute or two too long. Maybe it's my 21st century brain demanding something pacier...

My Verdict
I shan't deny it. I am much more fond of Hitchcock's own remake in 1956, but this has a lot going for it too. I don't think it's as perfect as other critics make out.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Waltzes From Vienna

Title: Waltzes From Vienna
Year: 1933
Studio: Gaumont-British Picture corporation Ltd
Screenplay: Guy Bolton and Alma Reville
Source Material: Based on the play 'Walzerkrieg' by Heinz Reichhart, Dr AM Wilmer and Ernest Marischka
Running Time: 76 minutes
A black & white picture

Saturday 18th September, 1:45pm
After spending the majority of the week with a ghastly cold, I was hoping to feel better by the weekend. However, it is Saturday and I am still a bit snuffly. Not as bad as I was, for sure, but the Kleenex is still being used for its ultimate purpose. Frustratingly, I have a bit of freelance work to attend to as well, but I'd rather wait until I can focus properly - maybe tomorrow. Watching a Hitchcock film for me is an easy task, so I shifted it to the top of my to-do list, even though it should not be priority.

It is also important that I make note of a film entitled Lord Camber's Ladies which was to be directed by Hitchcock prior to this film - however, he gave up the reins to Benn Levy with whom he soon fell out with. This film is not considered to part of the official Hitchcock Canon.

The Cast
Jessie Matthews
Edmund Gwenn
Fay Compton
Esmond Knight
Frank Vosper
Robert Hale
Charles Heslop
Hindle Edgar
Marcus Barron
Betty Huntley Wright

A fire breaks out at a restaurant in Vienna and the fire brigade are on their way. The patrons and staff seem rather unperturbed by these events and merely take the tables and food outside into the street to continue as if nothing was happening. Upstairs, the restaurant owner's daughter, Rasi (Jessie Matthews), is singing with her beau, Johann Strauss the younger (Esmond Knight). She is rescued by one of her colleagues and the fire is put out with very little damage to the store or building. In the wake of the drama, Countess Helga von Stahl (Fay Compton) meets up with the young Strauss and decides to collaborate with him - her lyrics with his music.
The Countesses husband, the Prince (Frank Vosper), is a rather tense fellow but offers to assist with their collaboration as he is not fond of Johann's father.

The young Strauss gets a job at Rasi's father's bakery and whilst in the cookhouse, he is inspired to complete his composition after hearing the variety of rhythms as the bakers work.
Rasi becomes jealous of Johann's relationship with the countess and is adamant that she will leave him if he attends the music festival - however, it turns out that her father's bakery is providing the catering, so they all have to go anyway.

Strauss senior is not supportive of his son and refuses to believe he has any talent at all. So it is with subterfuge that the Countess and Strauss' manager, Anton Drexter (Marcus Barron), arrange for the younger Strauss to get his moment of glory at the festival.

The grand moment occurs just in time for the crowd to be wowed by this young composer's masterpiece. His father turns up toward the end and is aghast.

Poor Rasi and the Prince are equally distressed but for different reasons. Rasi believes her boyfriend will leave her to pursue his music career and the Prince believes his wife is having an affair with Strauss. The Prince races to the location where he believes Strauss and the Countess are meeting. Luckily, Rasi arrives beforehand, the Countess escapes out of the back window and the Prince merely finds Strauss and Rasi. Realising he was wrong, the Prince is forced to see sense.

The elder Strauss concedes also and is ready to admit his son's talents.

Great Lines
The young Strauss and Rasi are caught kissing by her father, he is not impressed:

Rasi's Father: "Look here, I won't have this. Why, your mother wouldn't allow me to kiss her until six months after we married!"

Rasi: "Now I know why you were over fifty when I was born!"

A comedic musical biopic, eh? Not the sort of thing one thinks of when the name 'Hitchcock' is bandied about. I say 'biopic', but I would suggest taking events depicted here with a pinch of salt as it's mainly played for entertainment value.
Alfred was curious about the project as he had a fascination with film and its soundtrack, especially in these early years of the talking picture. The process of editing a film is one thing, but to make edits with sound was a thrilling challenge for Hitch.
My favourite scene has to be when the Strauss Jnr is inspired by the rhythms of the work in the bakery and its machinery to complete On the Beautiful Blue Danube.

Although not everybody's cup of tea, I am rather fond of Edmund Gwenn, the Welsh actor with a long and steady career. Hitch would use him again in Foreign Correspondent and The Trouble With Harry and had already used him in The Skin Game.
Jessie Matthews was a big star in Britain during the Thirties. If you ever get the opportunity, check out a glorious little thriller she starred in named Friday the Thirteenth also from 1933. No, nothing to do with Camp Crystal Lake... it's a little gem of a movie in which a bus crashes on that fateful evening and then we turn back the clock to see the events which lead up to it and the lives of the passengers - some of whom won't live to see Saturday the Fourteenth! Anyway, I digress...
Why Esmond Knight doesn't get better billing is beyond me. Sure, he is not as famous as the main three stars, but his role is the central character and the actor played the part in the stage play - I think he deserves more credit!

My Verdict
Quite a cheerful and entertaining film with some lovely, lyrical dialogue. Perfect Saturday afternoon viewing without being too taxing to the little grey cells.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rich and Strange

Title: Rich and Strange
Year: 1932 (Although the onscreen date is 1931, it was released in 1932)
Studio: British International Pictures Ltd
Screenplay: Alma Reville, Val Valentine & Alfred Hitchcock
Source Material: A book by Dale Collins
Running Time: 80 minutes
A black & white picture.

Sunday 12th September, 8:30am
It's my cat's birthday today! Sweet little Fizzgig is 10 years old today. Bless her heart! I'm beginning to get a bit worried now, because, through word of mouth, more and more people are hearing that I am doing this blog. I don't see much evidence of anyone actually reading it, but I am growing concerned as people may be expecting some high-calibre literary critique of film technique - oh my, they will be sorely disappointed. It's ironic that I enjoy writing these blogs with the notion that no one is actually reading them. It makes one wonder what the point is. However, I enjoy the task in hand and shall continue for as long as it makes me happy. Why not, eh?

The Cast
Henry Kendall - Fred Hill
Joan Barry - Emily Hill
Percy Marmont - Commander Gordon
Betty Amann - The Princess
Elsie Randolph - The Old Maid

Doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange

The Tempest.

Fred and Emily Hill are a nice young couple who have grown weary of their safe little existence. Luckily, Fred comes into some inheritance early and they set off on an adventure, seeing the world.
On the first leg of their journey, Fred discovers he is susceptible to sea-sickness and spends a lot of time in his bed. This pushes Emily towards other guests and she strikes up a friendship with Commander Gordon who does not believe she is treated properly by her husband.
They also meet an old maid who is quite needy and desperate for attention - her persistence is comical but tiring for everyone else.
Later, after being hit in the face by a flying quoit, Fred makes the acquaintance of a supposed Princess with whom he becomes rather enamoured.
These new friendships begin to tear our protagonists apart. By the time they reach Singapore, they are practically separated. It is only when Emily learns from Gordon how the Princess is actually an adventuress who cons people out of their money, that Emily seeks Fred out and tells him the truth. The Princess absconds with one thousand pounds and the two are back together, albeit penniless. They manage to get passage on cheap steamer in an effort to get home. However, one night, the steamer has an accident and the ship begins to sink. They are resigned to their fate as they are trapped in their cabin - however, they awake the following morning to see that they are still afloat. They clamber out of their porthole and scour the decks for fresh clothes and something to eat and drink. They discover the ship's cat still alive. They see a Chinese Junk ship arrive and the crew loot the sinking ship just moments before it disappears beneath the water for ever. Emily and Fred (and the cat) climb aboard the Junk and are taken back home - Fred realises that he can reclaim the money stolen by the Princess along with the clothes lost on the ship all in one insurance claim. The couple of bemused and bamboozled by the Chinese crew in their rather different ways but eventually they are brought home safely.
Upon their return to wet England, it is not long before Fred and Emily are bickering again. This time about moving house to accommodate the baby they plan to have.

Great Lines
Coming out of the Folie Bergere...
Emily: "Somebody just pinched me!"
Fred: "Where?"
Emily: "You know where!"

Arriving at Port Said...
Emily: "To think that that place has been there all these years - all those strange people having babies, dying, cooking their funny meals - strange - been there all these years..."
Fred: "Well you don't think they built it especially for us overnight, do you?"

On the sinking ship...
Emily: "Do you think it matters if I use the Gentlemen's (toilet)?"
Fred: "Yes, go on, there's no sense in being suburban."

This was to be Hitch's last project with British International Pictures and it did not fare too well at the box office.
Rumour has it that not only was it based on Dale Collins' novel, but Hitch, in his adaptation, inserted elements of his own honeymoon with Alma, making it slightly autobiographical.
A few things stand out for me:
The opening sequence where Fred is leaving work highlighting the busy nature of our lives and the perils of peak hour on public transport.
The Old Maid and her quest for purchasing a carpet - especially the way she 'tries it out'.
The sinking of the ship at the end - beautifully realised with the sets and the tank.

Although very black comedy (which I tend to like) I still feel perturbed by the fate of the poor cat - saved from a sinking ship, only top end up as dinner. Yeah, I'm a cat lover...

A couple of other nice touches include when Fred is sea-sick, he cannot focus on the food menu and the words swim off the page toward him.
Also, when Emily is reading the 'Dear John' letter from Gordon, her eyes brim with tears and she is unable to see the note properly before her, so we see it blurred.

My Verdict
This is another film of Hitchcock's which is derided by other critics. I don't think it's that bad. There may be very little plot but I do find the whole thing rather endearing, if slightly bonkers. I'll give it a safe 5/10 for fear of academics mocking me.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Number Seventeen

Title: Number Seventeen
Year: 1932
Studio: British International Pictures Ltd
Screenplay: Alma Reville, Alfred Hitchock & Rodney Ackland
Source Material: A novel and play by J. Jefferson Farjeon
Running Time: 61 minutes
A black & white picture.

Sunday 5th September, 1:50pm
Call me a lazy-arsed git if you so please, but I decided to have another long weekend this weekend. I was having a rough day on Friday and I went and asked my boss if I could take Monday off and, happily, she agreed.
Yes, sure, i could be doing something more productive with my days off, but I have thoroughly enjoyed stretching out on the couch under a quilt and watching a number of DVDs - mainly old episodes of Roseanne and The Avengers.
However, I did not want to put my Hitchcock Project to one side and I put on this short little film. I have had a soft spot for it for some years now, but due to the nature of this time-consuming task, I also sought out some other reviews. Well, it appears that I must be a brick-chewing moron as I seem to be alone in the appreciation of this movie. Most reviewers are almost spitting fire over it. What am I missing, I wonder?

The Cast
Leon M. Lion - Ben
Anne Grey - Nora
John Stuart - Detective
Donald Calthrop - Brant
Barry Jones - Henry Doyle
Ann Casson - Rose Ackroyd
Henry Caine - Mr Ackroyd
Garry Marsh - Sheldrake

Number Seventeen is up for sale. As it stands uninhabited, it has become a place for crooks to make their getaway as there is a trapdoor leading to the underground railway. A body lies within the house and a tramp named Ben stumbles upon it.
Slowly, more and more people enter the house, a young gentlemen, a girl looking for her father and a suspicious group of people (including a mute woman) who claim to be prospective buyers. Nobody trusts anyone else and soon chaos begins to break out with a few scenes of fisticuffs. It is apparent that somebody has left a valuable necklace on the premises and the crooks are attempting to take it and leave for the continent. Rose and the detective make an improbable team helped/hindered occasionally by Ben, the clueless tramp. Luckily for them all, Nora is not a deaf mute as the criminals surmise, and its her betrayal to her employees that assists our heroes to escape their bondage and get free.
Toward the end, the criminals are making their getaway on the train heading for the coast and the ferry. During a fight and a showdown, the train loses its drivers and the vehicle is charging out of control. The train smashes into the ferry and tumbles into the water. The Detective dives in to save Nora and Ben had the foresight and audacity to preserve the stolen necklace by wearing it around his neck.

Great Lines
Admittedly, there aren't that many great lines, but Ben the tramp has a few funny moments, usually surrounding the sausage in his pocket (no, this is not a Carry on film).
His curiosity upon finding the gun for the first time highlights the characters utter stupidity when he points it at his own face and says "I wonder if it's loaded!" which puts me in mind of Douglas Reynholm in The IT Crowd.

I also love the moment when Rose is hanging from the banister. She awakes from her unconscious state, gleefully stating "Ooh, I fainted!" before looking down at the drop below her and immediately fainting again. Cute.

OK, so it is not the greatest Hitchcock film of all time, but I certainly do not think it is the worst.
The original novel and play were much more in the vein of a standard thriller but Hitch did attempt to lighten it and give it a comical edge. Frankly, I can see why, for it needs comedy to elevate it from the convoluted mire that the plot envelops. The whole thing makes very little sense, but Hitch plays with it like a cat with a semi-conscious vole, purely for our entertainment.
I have often said in the past that great thrillers need staircases, shadows and railways. This film has all three in abundance, but sadly, having all the correct ingredients does not necessarily mean you get the perfect dish. Hitch's love of shadows is taken to a new level. I recall seeing this the first time on a crappy VHS copy and it was so dark, I might as well have been listening to a Radio version. However, the DVD quality has alleviated all unnecessary squinty faces in the audience.
The final chase at the climax is a frantic yet exciting race against time as the train heads towards its doom and the bus, commandeered by the detective, speeds alongside through a 'model' countryside. I loved the incongruous nature of the bus passenger screaming as it belts down the road and they pass a sign saying "STOP HERE FOR DAINTY TEAS!". The actual crash at the end is wonderfully dramatic and should be applauded.

My Verdict
I shan't be as cruel as those academic critics who slate this movie as a turkey. At most it's a peahen. No, I can't explain that metaphor.
It's a short, fun and slightly barmy film and I like its crazy energy. Not a masterpiece but a lark all the same. 4/10 (Others give it 2 or less.)