Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Sabotage (1936)

Sabotage was the first of Hitchcock's British films that I had the opportunity to see, though it was not a film that I especially sought out for itself. Instead, I came across it rather by chance. In the days of VHS, the local Best Buy had a shelf consisting of nothing but the "Hollywood Classics" tapes from Madacy home video. Madacy was notorious as perhaps the worst of the bargain-basement video dealers at that time, with cassettes mastered from sub-par elements in the low-quality EP speed. Their selection of public domain titles littered the shelves at numerous video stores I frequented.

Still, as a budding cinephile on a tight budget, their affordable price tag (about $5 a pop, if I recall) made them an attractive option, especially for films that were not out in any other edition, and I'd frequently check out their selection on trips to Best Buy. Scouring the shelf on one such trip, I came across Sabotage, which caught my attention because it was a Hitchcock film, and I was making it a point to see all the Hitchcock films I could find in order to check them off my list. I knew little about Sabotage, other than that it was one of his early, British films, a period of his career with which I was woefully inexperienced. Watching the film in that low-quality, blurry tape, I was nonetheless gripped by the suspenseful plot, and impressed by the imaginative techniques (especially in the editing) that appealed to me as an aspiring filmmaker.

Later, as I read more critical appreciations of Hitchcock's body of work, I was surprised to learn that Sabotage had its detractors, including Hitchcock himself, who had misgivings about his decision to include what would become the film's most memorable and suspenseful scene, involving a young boy who unknowingly carries a bomb onto a London bus and is blown to bits. That particular scene is indeed deeply disturbing, all the more so as it is followed immediately by a shot of other characters laughing at something unrelated, which still cannot help but leave a sour taste, as if the whole incident is being treated as a sick joke (Hitchcock used a similar device to greater effect in The 39 Steps). But it is also so expertly handled, such a tour-de-force of editing and structure, that I couldn't help but marvel at the sheer brilliance of its execution. I studied Hitchcock's shot selection and editing, watching the scene multiple times.

It is certainly one of Hitchcock's darkest films, both in terms of its subject matter but also in terms of its shadowy, claustrophobic atmosphere, and a sense of despair hangs over the characters, who seem trapped in a humdrum existence that borders on the oppressive. Mrs. Verloc's marriage to the much older, emotionally distant Mr. Verloc (Oscar Homolka) isn't exactly an unhappy one, though it's certainly not conventionally happy, either. It seems to be more a case of mutual dependence. Mrs. Verloc also takes care of her awkward, gangly adolescent brother (Desmond Tester), with whom she moved from America to England some years before, ostensibly to look for better employment opportunities, but hinting at something more complicated.

As the film opens, London is in the midst of a blackout, the result of an act of sabotage perpetrated by Mr. Verloc. It is unclear whether Mrs. Verloc is genuinely oblivious to her husband's involvement in the blackout, or whether she might be in denial about it, but in any case, Mr. Verloc the attention of a Scotland Yard detective (John Loder), who uses Mrs. Verloc as a conduit to investigate her husband's activities. In the end, Mrs. Verloc loses her brother, and is betrayed, or at least deceived, by both her husband and by the young detective (though the latter does stand by her and protect her in the film's final moments).

While it is an uncharacteristically grim film from Hitchcock, the mood never feels artificially imposed, and it makes for an interesting contrast with the director's usual approach. There is only one scene that employs Hitchcock's playfully morbid sense of humor: after learning of her brother's demise, Mrs. Verloc, in a state of shock, wanders into the cinema, where a Disney cartoon ("Who Killed Cock Robin?") is playing on the screen, and whose plot offers an ironic commentary on the events of the film. Hitchcock excels in his juxtaposition of the familiar with the sinister.

Friday, October 02, 2015

The Night Has Eyes (1942)

Sometimes you can stumble upon a movie in the most unlikely of circumstances. I came across this one for the first time about 20 years ago, when I found a VHS copy from Goodtimes Home Video at a tent sale in a shopping mall parking lot in Pennsylvania. It sounded interesting enough from the description on the box cover copy, but I decided not to buy it (probably due to a lack of allowance money -- I was only 12 or 13!) and came away empty handed.

The description of the film stuck in my mind, and over the years I would try to find a copy, but to no avail. Recently, however, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I finally had the opportunity to see it for the first time, and was pleasantly surprised by what a really entertaining, tightly-constructed little thriller it is. The premise involves a couple of young schoolteachers on vacation in the Yorkshire Moors, where one of their colleagues had recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances. When they become stranded on the moor on a dark and stormy night, the women seek shelter in an old house belonging to a brilliant but troubled pianist (James Mason), with whom one of the women falls instantly, madly in love. But when it becomes apparent that Mason is harboring dark secrets from his past, and is given to violent episodes, the two women begin to fear that they are in danger, especially when they learn that their colleague had also been staying in the house at the time of her disappearance.

Directed by Leslie Arliss, from a script by Arliss and John Argyle adapted from a novel by Alan Kennington, with Gunther Krampf's stylish, high-contrast cinematography giving it just the right look, and a colorful supporting cast including Joyce Howard, Tucker McGuire, Mary Clare, Wilfrid Lawson and John Fernald, this is a superb wartime British thriller, oozing mystery and atmosphere, and perfect viewing for a cold, gray, rainy night.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Sugarland Express (1974)

This early Spielberg film is a rollicking, fast-paced road picture about a Texas couple who kidnap a policeman and force him to drive them across the state to reunite with their child, who has been taken out of their custody by the state. Goldie Hawn and William Atherton make the most of their rather one-dimensional characters, though at times it seems as though they are appearing in two different movies (with Hawn too frequently playing her part in broad caricature, while Atherton seems to be trying to get at something darker and more intense with his performance). Michael Sacks is effective enough if rather bland as the young officer forced to drive the pair across the state against his will, though his transformation at the end, sympathizing with the outlaws and betraying his duties to the law by alerting his abductors to a potential police ambush, is handled too abruptly and without any real explanation as to why he (or the audience) should care so much about these two. Ben Johnson gives the film's strongest performance, as the weary old lawman leading the difficult pursuit to bring the couple to justice.

Overall, it's a skillfully-made debut theatrical feature from Spielberg, who proves himself especially effective in his handling of the large-scale, high-speed car chases (recalling his celebrated work on DUEL a few years earlier), though the pacing frequently lags between these set pieces, bogged down by heavy-handed commentary on gun violence, police corruption, and the nature of celebrity in America. It's not that these points aren't relevant to the events in the film, but Spielberg's handling of them is too self-conscious and telegraphed to be really effective. Coming between his brilliant early work on DUEL, and his first full-fledged masterpiece, JAWS, the following year, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS perhaps can't help but feel like a minor effort in Spielberg's filmography.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Blackmail (1929)

It is difficult to imagine the incredible pressure that must have been weighing on Alfred Hitchcock's shoulders when he undertook the production of his tenth film, Blackmail, in 1929. Consider the lofty and unique position he had attained at this point in his career: rising quickly as he did through the ranks of the British film industry, having achieved a great deal of acclaim for what was only his third film (1926's The Lodger, held up as a shining example of what the British cinema could be), which in turn catapulted him to a level of celebrity remarkable for any director at that time. Now, having mastered the purely visual storytelling of the silent film, Hitchcock was thrust into the midst of a technological change that had a profound altering impact on the medium. Not only was Blackmail to be Hitchcock's first talking film, it was also the first all-talkie produced in the UK (it was billed as "Britain's All-Talkie Challenge To The World"). There were undoubtedly high expectations for Hitchcock to deliver a film worthy of this distinction and of his celebrated reputation within the nation's film industry. Keep in mind, he was not yet 30.

The resulting film was the most accomplished he had yet made, demonstrating an astonishing command of and inventiveness with the infant medium of sound film. Working within the suspense genre for which he had shown such aptitude in The Lodger, for his source material this time Hitchcock turned to a play by Charles Bennett (who would become of one the director's most valuable collaborators later in the 1930s), and handled the task of adapting the script himself. Blackmail established the model for many of the themes, techniques and plot devices that Hitchcock would return to again and again in his mature work.

Like many early talkies, Blackmail was produced simultaneously in both sound and silent versions. There is the opinion in some quarters that the silent version is the superior one, an expression of "pure cinema" unencumbered by the restraints of the newfangled commercial sound film technology. The silent version is certainly effective enough, but a comparison of the two versions reveals that Hitchcock used the new creative possibilities afforded by sound -- specifically, its ability to heighten the tension between what we see and what we hear -- in order to create a more fully-realized and satisfying suspense film.

Because Hitchcock would soon develop these techniques and ideas to a greater degree, beginning just a few years later with The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps, Blackmail can appear, in contrast with those classics, to be a quaint work primarily of historical interest as an early, formative effort from a great director who would go on to do much better things. In some ways, to be sure, it is that. But to view the film this way does a disservice to the inventiveness and creativity, and indeed the apparent ease, with which Hitchcock adapted his style to the new sound film medium. In that context, Blackmail remains an remarkable achievement, and one of the most important films the director ever made.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Tomorrow's Children (1934)

During the 1930s and 40s, it seemed that virtually no topic was considered off-limits as fodder for exploitation filmmakers. This specimen, from 1934, deals with the subject of forced sterilization, certainly a hotly-debated issue at the time, when the eugenics movement in the US had gained astonishing support. The story is sensational stuff, involving a young woman who comes from a socially undesirable family, and is thus deemed unfit to reproduce and ordered by law to be sterilized.

Though predictably heavy-handed and didactic in its presentation, the film is nevertheless effective in its condemnation of compulsory sterilization, offering a sympathetic view toward the conditions of the different individuals forced to undergo the procedure. Of course, it also lives up to expectations as exploitation, combining elements of graphic, quasi-informative medical jargon (the doctor explaining the vasectomy process to a criminal), silly, slapstick comedy (Sterling Holloway accidentally imbibing a glass of castor oil) and ludicrous, high melodrama (the girl is saved in the end by the efforts of her fiance and a conscionable doctor, who are able to stop the procedure at the last minute after obtaining a tearful confession from the girl's mother that she was, in fact, adopted!). Otherwise, it's a pretty typical piece of '30s exploitation filmmaking, directed without any particular distinction by Crane Wilbur.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936)

An artifact from a time when documentarians were as concerned with formal experimentation as they were with making a point, THE PLOW THAT BROKE THE PLAINS (1936) was produced by the Resettlement Administration to examine conditions that led to the Dust Bowl in the Great Plains, and simultaneously functions as a visual poem contrasting a pastoral ideal with encroaching modernity.

There is one moment in particular that stands out: a shot of an old farmhouse, set against a stark sky, situated on a dusty plain with sparse vegetation, with a broken wagon wheel in the foreground. With an apparent simplicity belying its careful composition, and the sparse but evocative selection of representative objects, it's a kind of cinematic equivalent to William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow".

Written and Directed by Pare Lorentz; photographed by Leo Hurwitz, Paul Strand, Ralph Steiner and Paul Ivano; narrated by Thomas Chalmers. The film is in the public domain and is available for viewing at the Internet Archive.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Burke and Hare (2010)

Here is that rarest of films -- a recent comedy that is actually funny. Not quirky, not cute, not ironic, but genuinely, uproariously funny. It's the kind of comedy that leaves you elated even after it's over. How this one didn't get more attention upon its release is beyond me. Director John Landis blends broad slapstick farce (reminiscent of Mel Brooks' best work) with characteristically British black humor to tell the story of the pair of grave robbers who made a living by acquiring cadavers to sell to Edinburgh University's medical school.

Landis (along with screenwriters Piers Ashworth and Nick Moorcroft) skillfully turns this premise into a cheerfully silly (and exceptionally handsomely-mounted) period comedy that succeeds in large part due to the superb performances of Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis in the title roles, supported by some of Britain's finest acting talents (both comedic and dramatic), including Tim Curry, Tom Wilkinson, Ronnie Corbett, Jessica Hynes, Isla Fisher, Hugh Bonneville, David Schofield, David Hayman, Stephen Merchant, Christopher Lee, and fun cameo appearances by filmmakers Ray Harryhausen, Michael Winner and Costa-Gavras, among others.