Fast & Furious Hitchcock: THE 39 STEPS (Gaumont-British 1935)

The chase is on – and on – as Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll are pursued by cops and spies while pursuing a deadly secret in Alfred Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS. The “double chase”, first used by Hitch in his silent THE LODGER (1927), playfully keeps the film’s motor running in high gear, and introduces us to two of his soon-to-be famous tropes, the “McGuffin” and the ice blonde. It’s certainly an important film for Hitchcock, as it caught the eye of Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, who would bring Hitch to America’s shores five years later.

Donat, later an Oscar winner for 1939’s GOODBYE MR. CHIPS, plays Richard Hannay, trapped in circumstances beyond his control. The film begins in one of Hitchcock’s favorite places, a crowded public landmark, in this case a music hall (the marquee reminiscent of the shot of Anna Ondry walking past “A New Comedy” in BLACKMAIL ), as Hannay watches a performance by Mr. Memory (and his fabulous moustache!). The boisterous crowd heckles the entertainer, and soon a brawl breaks out among the drunken patrons. Shots are fired during the chaos, and as the horde disperses, we learn it was a ruse, a diversion created by Annabella Smith (German actress Lucie Mannheim), who tells Richard she’s a freelance spy working for the Brits to protect a secret important to the crown. At Richard’s apartment, she’s killed by a knife in the back, handing him a map of Scotland before dying.

Richard’s forced to take it on the lam, pursued by two spies as well as wanted by the constabulary for murder. His cleaning lady has discovered the body, and her scream segues into a train whistle. Richard’s on board, trying to elude the cops, and ducks into Pamela Shaneakwa’s (Carroll) compartment, only to be fingered by her to the cops. He escapes by climbing atop a very high bridge, another favorite Hitchcock spot.  Seeking shelter at the farm of an old Scot (John Laurie, later of the Brit sitcom DAD’S ARMY) and his much younger bride (the future Dame Peggy Ashcroft), he stays the night, and the old coot suspects Richard’s hitting on his wife. The man tries to turn in him for reward money, only to have the lass help him escape (she receives a kiss from the dashing Donat for her efforts!).

Richard makes his way to the home of Professor Jordan, thinking he’s an ally of Annabella, only to find out the man’s leader of the spy gang! He’s almost killed (I won’t tell you how he dodges that bullet, you’ll have to watch the movie!), and lives to tell his tale to the local sheriff, who doesn’t believe him – no one does! Crashing through a window, he loses them in a crowded parade and winds up in the midst of a political rally, spouting a gibberish speech when he’s recognized by none other than Pamela. Two cops escort him out, with Pamela in tow as a witness, and handcuff them together. You guessed it, the cops are really part of the spy plot, and Richard manages to escape once again, this time chained to Pamela, who hates the accused murderer!

THE 39 STEPS has everything you could ask for in a Hitchcock film: action, romance, comedy, spies, and many of his famous signatures. There’s the innocent man involved in extraordinary circumstances, danger in public places, voyeurism (Carroll taking off her stockings, later putting them back on), trains, high places, and an exciting (and unexpected) conclusion that takes us back to Mr. Memory. And yes, the director does one of his patented cameos; again, it’s up to you to find him! The secret of THE 39 STEPS is not as important as how Hitchcock gets to it, and the journey is fun indeed.

Donat and Carroll make a marvelous pair, and the comedy between them is has a decidedly screwball flavor. Madeleine Carroll played “the ice blonde” in Hitchcock’s THE SECRET AGENT the following year, then moved to Hollywood to star in vintage fare like THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, ON THE AVENUE, DeMille’s NORTHWEST MOUNTED POLICE, and the Bob Hope spy spoof MY FAVORITE BLONDE. At one point she was the highest paid actress in the world, but gave it all up to aid in the war effort after her sister was killed during the Blitz. She died in 1987 at the age of 81.

Hitchcock would make five more films in England before beginning the next phase of his career in America with REBECCA. His British films of the 30’s were but a proving ground for greater things to come. THE 39 STEPS gives the viewer a chance to observe the Master of Suspense honing his unique style and vision, which would serve him well in the decades to come.

Look At Me Look At You: Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW (Paramount 1954)

When you go out to the neighborhood cinema, you’re indulging in a voyeuristic experience, watching the lives of people unfold before you on the screen. The theme of viewer as voyeur, peeping in on the privacy of total strangers, has never been done better than in Alfred Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW, nor more entertainingly. Like James Stewart’s protagonist L.B. Jeffries, we the audience are the voyeurs in the shadows watching from afar, stumbling onto things not meant for our eyes, and powerless to stop them without outside assistance. Hitchcock is not only the Master of Suspense, but a master of audience manipulation, and this dazzling piece of moviemaking is not only a hell of a thrill ride but a technical marvel as well.

 

The world of globetrotting photojournalist Jeffries has been boiled down to the view of the courtyard outside his apartment window, just as the audience’s world is now focused on the screen. Jeffries, confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg, spends his days watching the lives of others unfold before him. The courtyard itself is a massively constructed replica on a Paramount sound stage complete with fully furnished, functional apartments costing somewhere between $75-100,000 dollars to build (reports vary). The lighting was rigged to simulate dusk to dawn, mimicking the real world outside the studio confines. It’s incredible to me that Hitchcock would pay so much attention to detail, yet most of the action (except a few brief scenes) is shot from Stewart’s apartment! That’s what separates a true artist from the multitudes.

Across that courtyard, Jeffries (and the audience through him) observes his neighbors, each becoming their own film-within-a-film. Hitchcock had dabbled in many genres before donning his “Master of Suspense’ mantle, and we are privy to the mini-tales of a frustrated songwriter (played by real-life songwriter Ross Bagdasarian, later to achieve fame as Dave Seville, mentor to Alvin and the Chipmunks!) trying to follow his own muse (this is where Hitch’s annual cameo comes into play), the delectable Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy) fending off the wolves while waiting for her serviceman lover to return home, a put-upon married couple ( Frank Cady aka Sam Drucker of GREEN ACRES  , and Sara Berner) and their cute little dog (who will play a part in the unmasking of the crime), a newlywed couple (Rand Harper, Havis Davenport) celebrating their honeymoon (her cries of “Harrrry” are a lot different from Allison Hayes’s bellowing in ATTACK OF THE 50 FOOT WOMAN !), an eccentric artist (Jesslyn Fax, perhaps standing in for Hitchcock himself?) and the sad tale of Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), an unmarried woman “of a certain age” who dines alone and cries herself to sleep.

Yet all this is superfluous to where Jeffries (and our) real focus is: the goings-on inside the apartment of salesman Lars Thorwald and his invalid wife. We watch as Thorwald draws the shades in the bedroom, then late at night takes trips to and from home, carrying his sample case, holding what we don’t know. When Thorwald is seen cleaning a butcher knife and a handsaw, and bundling a large trunk with rope, Jeffries (and us) can only come to one conclusion – murder most foul has been committed! Noir heavy Raymond Burr conveys a sense of menace as the bulky Thorwald even from afar, and the in-joke is the actor is made up to look like Hitchcock’s bete noire, producer David O. Selznick, whom Hitchcock clashed with during his time spent under contract. The penultimate scene, where Burr enters Stewart’s apartment with malice aforethought, is a masterpiece of utilizing sound and vision on film to their best advantage, and should be studied by aspiring filmmakers as much as PSYCHO’s vaunted shower scene.

There’s  another conflict going on during the film with Jeffries’ culture clash with his girlfriend, glamorous model Lisa Freemont, portrayed by Hitchcock’s ultimate “ice blonde” Grace Kelly. When Jeffries balks at the thought of marriage to her, I thought, “Are you crazy??”. Kelly (beautifully gowned by the great Edith Head) is a vision of loveliness, and the polar opposite of working class Stewart, and his character believes their different worlds will never allow them to successfully navigate the swift rapids of relationship bliss. It’s only when Lisa proves her mettle by doing some “amateur sleuthing” (a favorite Hitchcock motif), and places herself in great jeopardy that Jeffries finally realizes she’s the one for him. Stewart and Kelly engage in some titillatingly hot sexual banter, and their scenes together allow the audience to peep on the peeper, indulging Hitchcock’s (and our) voyeuristic streak and taking it to yet another level.

And what can one say about Thelma Ritter except “Bravo”! Her sarcastic role of Stella, the nurse attending to Jeffries, is a real hoot, and lets Hitchcock set his comedic side loose. Thelma gets off the best lines with her own inimitable style; my favorite is when Stewart asks what Thorwald could possibly be selling at three o’clock in the morning and she replies, “Flashlights”. It breaks the tension as Stewart’s character is becoming more and more convinced that Thorwald is up to no good. She also gets in the last word regarding the contents of a hat box found in Thorwald’s apartment, delivering it as only Thelma Ritter could. Wendell Corey, an actor I usually find too bland, does a good job as Jeffries’ police pal Tom Doyle, skeptical about the whole situation, and serving to plant the seeds of doubt in Jeffries’ (and the audience’s) mind.

Alfred Hitchcock is like a cat with a catnip-stuffed toy mouse here, pawing at his audience and batting it around the courtyard with glee. REAR WINDOW is a movie about murder, but it’s also about moviemaking, about the audience as voyeur, and about manipulating our collective emotions like the Master of Suspense he truly was, drawing us in to this constructed world and making it look and seem all too real. That the reality is only an illusion on a Paramount sound stage is a testament to the genius of Alfred Hitchcock, and REAR WINDOW is essential viewing for the voyeur in all of us.

 

 

My Favorite Spy: Sean Connery as James Bond in GOLDFINGER (United Artists 1964)

For my money, GOLDFINGER is the ultimate James Bond movie, serving as the blueprint for spy sagas to come. The action begins right off the rip as a scuba diving 007 infiltrates an oil refinery in an unnamed Latin American country, plants some plastique explosives, and changes into a tux as the whole shebang blows, then attends to some “unfinished business” with a beautiful Latina who sets him up to be killed by a bad guy, electrocuting his foe in a tub and wittily remarking “shocking, positively shocking” – all before the opening credits roll and Shirley Bassey belts out the immortal title tune by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse!

Our Man Bond is then off to Miami to meet with his CIA pal Felix Leiter. He’s put on the trail of one Auric Goldfinger, a legit gold bullion dealer suspected of illegal activities. The avaricious Goldfinger isn’t above running a card cheating scam, with sexy Jill Masterson stationed high above in a hotel window looking at the victim’s hand through binoculars. 007 breaks things up by seducing young Jill, who pays for her betrayal with her life – painted solid gold! Things have just become personal for Bond! But petty card cheating isn’t Goldfinger’s only sin. The rapacious businessman has a much more insidious scheme in mind, involving a hostile takeover of Ft. Knox, tainting the U.S. gold reserve with a nuclear device that will send the world into economic chaos and leave him the most powerful man on Earth!

Sean Connery fits the part of James Bond like that tux I mentioned earlier in his third turn as the suave secret agent. He’s placed in peril after peril yet still remains cool as a “shaken, not stirred” martini. The movie gives him some great gadgets to do his dirty work with, including a brand-new Aston Martin DB5 equipped with “modifications” like a smoke screen, oil slick, mounted machine guns, and an ejector seat that sure comes in handy! This was the first of the Bond films to utilize those wild gadgets, a trope that became a staple of later 007 epics.

The villains here are among the most iconic in Bond history. German actor Gert Frobe is perfect as the vainglorious, gold obsessed Auric Goldfinger, whose delusions of grandeur are thwarted by 007. Frobe didn’t speak English very well, and had to be redubbed, but his imposing presence caught producer’s eyes and lead to him being cast in big budget blockbusters like THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES, IS PARIS BURING?, CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG, and $ (DOLLARS). Harold Sakata, a professional wrestler under the ring moniker Tosh Togo, plays Goldfinger’s silent but deadly henchman Oddjob, whose steel-brimmed bowler hat launched a thousand spy-spoof parodies. Sakata, who also won a Silver Medal (sorry, no gold this time!) in weightlifting at the 1948 Olympics, went on to a long career in films and television, including a memorable ad campaign for Vicks Formula 44 cough syrup.

Then there’s Honor Blackman as the ribaldly named Pussy Galore! And the way Connery pronounces her name (“Poo-shay”) makes it sound even lewder! Honor was well-known to British TV audiences as the leather-clad partner of Patrick Macnee in THE AVENGERS (before Diana Rigg), and she makes an irresistible antagonist for Bond, switching sides after the memorable “roll in the hay” scene where she and Connery exchange judo flips. The deadly, plane piloting Pussy Galore ranks high on my list of all-time great Bond Girls! As for the other ladies here, Shirley Eaton shines (literally!) as the ill-fated Jill Masterson. Later in the film, Tania Mallet shows up as Jill’s revenge seeking sister, getting an Oddjob hat check for her troubles.

The regular Bond gang’s all here: Bernard Lee as M, Desmond Llewellyn as Q, and Lois Maxwell   as Miss Moneypenny. There are so many iconic moments in GOLDFINGER, including the laser beam scene (a variation on the old buzzsaw routine), the assault on Ft. Knox and lengthy battle with Oddjob, the crazy car chase, and of course the gold-painted beauty Jill. The movie introduced a lot of firsts to the Bond Universe, the pre-credits action, outlandish gadgets, and the initial briefing from M, not to mention having established stars sing the opening theme song, a tradition followed by pop greats like Tom Jones, Paul McCartney, Carly Simon, and Duran Duran. GOLDFINGER is the perfect place to start for anyone unfamiliar with James Bond movies (are there any still in existence?); it’s the quintessential 60’s spy flick and remains my personal favorite.

This is my contribution to the 007 Blogathon at http://maddylovesherclassicfilms.wordpress.com/2017/07/20/the-007-blogathon-begins/

One Hit Wonders #5: DOA by Bloodrock (Capitol Records 1971)

Talk about shock rock! Proto-metal rockers Bloodrock reached #36 on the charts in 1971 with DOA, a morbid little ditty about a plane crash, told from the victim’s point of view:

Bloodrock began playing local Ft. Worth, Texas venues in 1965 as The Naturals, quickly changing their name to Crowd +1. A string of unsuccessful singles followed, until they were discovered by Detroit rock impresario Terry Knight, a former DJ who once fronted his own band, Terry Knight & The Pack:

Knight changed their name to Bloodrock, taking over management and producing duties for the band. He also at the time handled the immensely popular (yet critically reviled) hard rock group Grand Funk Railroad:

After an acrimonious split with the two groups, and failing at starting his own label (Brown Bag Records), Knight vanished from the music scene. He hung out with stars, raced autos, but mostly did tons of cocaine. After getting clean in the 80’s, Terry Knight settled down to a life in advertising sales, until he was stabbed to death in 2004 by his daughter’s meth freak boyfriend. Which is a pretty gruesome way to go itself.

As for Bloodrock, they hung around the lower end of the album charts, continued touring, and finally disbanded in 1975. The song “DOA” is their only claim to fame, a heavy metal hit barely remembered except by those who have a taste for the ghastly. Like me! And perhaps, you too.

Terry Knight (1943-2004)

 

Structural Failure: THE BIG STREET (RKO 1942)

When I hear the word “Runyonesque”, I think about racetrack touts, colorful Broadway denizens, dames with hearts of gold, and the like. If you want to make a Runyonesque movie, what better way than to have author Damon Runyon himself produce it, as RKO did for 1942’s THE BIG STREET. All the elements are there, the jargon, the characters, but the film suffers from abrupt shifts in tone from comedy to drama, and a totally unpleasant role for Lucille Ball . The result is an uneven movie with a real downer of an ending.

Based on Runyon’s short story “Little Pinks”, it follows the unrequited love of bus boy Augustus “Little Pinks” Pinkerton for torch singing gold digger Gloria Lyons, dubbed “Her Highness” by Pinks. Henry Fonda plays Pinks as  lovestruck, spineless sad sack, dubbing Lucy Her Highness, even though she’s thoroughly rotten to him. When she’s smacked by her gangster boyfriend Case Ables ( Barton MacLane ) down the stairs and loses the ability to walk, she still treats Pinks like shit. The two leads aren’t very happy characters, and the movie suffers because of it.

It’s Pinks who helps her the most, paying her hospital bills and willing to practically wheel her all the way to Miami (the scene they cause at the Holland Tunnel is a comic standout), yet Her Highness is just using the lowly bus boy, her only goal being to snag millionaire playboy Decatur Reed (William T. Orr, later a successful television producer for Warner Bros). I think it’s Lucy’s character that turned me off; even at the end (which I won’t spoil for those who want to watch), I didn’t have much sympathy for her. She’s a self absorbed, total bitch, especially in her treatment of those who care about her, and almost completely ruined the film for me.

The movie’s saving grace is the eccentric supporting cast that brings those trademark “Runyonesque” characters to vivid life. Ray Collins   and Sam Levene hit the bull’s-eye as a pair of erudite gamblers named Professor B and Horsethief. Eugene Pallette and Agnes Moorehead shine in the parts of Violette Shumberg and Nicely-Nicely Johnson, a “fat-and-skinny” odd couple (the Nicely-Nicely character would later pop up in GUYS & DOLLS, played this time by Stubby Kaye). Millard Mitchell   has an early role as retired hood Gentleman George. Among the other Familiar Faces around the big street you’ll find Louise Beavers, Hans Conreid, George Cleveland, Charlie Hall, Donald Kerr, Marian Martin, John Miljan, and Dewey Robinson. Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra play in MacLane’s Miami nightclub, and look closely for Bess Flowers and a young Marie Windsor as faces in the crowd.

Director Irving Reis (THE BACHELOR AND THE BOBBY-SOXER, ALL MY SONS) had the unenviable task of balancing the bittersweet comedy-drama of Leonard Spielgass’s script, and isn’t quite up to it. Reis was fairly new in the director’s chair at the time, and those schizophrenic shifts from offbeat comical Runyonesque hoods to mean Lucy throwing shade at Fonda are quite jarring. Perhaps if director Reis had toned down Ball’s character a few notches and let Fonda lighten up a bit, I’d feel different. As it stands, I chalk it up as an interesting failure, but fans of Fonda, Ball, and Damon Runyon yarns will probably want to judge for themselves.

 

An Actor’s Actor: RIP Martin Landau

If he had only played Bela Lugosi in the marvelous Tim Burton film ED WOOD and nothing else, Martin Landau would hold a special place in the hearts of film lovers everywhere. But Landau, who passed away July 15 at age 89, was so much more than a one-note actor, leaving behind a body of work that saw him putting his personal stamp on every role he took. He worked with some of the giants of cinema, and slummed it with dreck like THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS ON GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. Mostly, he worked at what he loved best, the craft of acting.

                                         In Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959)

Landau’s breakout role was in the Hitchcock classic NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959), as the sinister sidekick of foreign spy James Mason, menacing stars Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Hollywood directors certainly took notice of his talents and cast Landau in some great films George Marshall’s THE GAZEBO (1959) is a delicious black comedy about blackmail and murder starring Glenn Ford and Debbie Reynolds. Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ all-star spectacle CLEOPATRA (1963) has him as Rufio, loyal soldier to Richard Burton’s Marc Antony. John Sturges’ underrated comedy-western THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL (1965) finds Landau playing great Chief Walks-Stooped-Over. Another all-star epic, George Stevens’ THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965) cast him as Caiaphus conspiring to kill Jesus Christ! In Henry Hathaway’s 1966 NEVADA SMITH, Landau got to work with his old pal Steve McQueen, as a nasty outlaw who gets killed by McQueen’s title character in a brutal (and well staged) knife fight.

As Rollin Hand on Mission: Impossible from 1966-69

During the 60’s, Landau costarred for three seasons on the hit show MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE as Rollin Hand, actor, make-up artist, and master of disguise. This gave him a chance to show off his knack for dialects, and (with the help of the Desilu make-up department) play two different roles per episode. Martin received “Special Guest Star” billing through his run on the series, and even spoofed himself on an episode of GET SMART. When he left he was replaced by Leonard Nimoy, who had accepted an earlier part Landau turned down – STAR TREK’s Spock!

With then-wife Barbara Bain on Space: 1999 (1975-77)

Landau and his wife Barbara Bain (who also costarred with him in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE) were at the helm for the cult sci-fi series SPACE: 1999. He played Commander Koenig, leader of Moonbase Alpha, a colony in peril as the moon itself blasts out of Earth’s orbit and into the outer edges of the Universe for fantastic adventures. Produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, better known for their marionette series STINGRAY, THUNDERBIRDS, and CAPTAIN SCARLET, this big budget TV spectacle failed to catch on, and was cancelled after two seasons. It’s still popular among sci-fi affecianadoes today.

Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

After hitting a career slump that found him in the aforementioned “Globetrotters Meet Gilligan” fiasco (where he and Bain portrayed mad scientists), he made his “comeback” film, 1988’s TUCKER: THE MAN AND HIS DREAM, as Abe Karatz, partner of Jeff Bridges’ Preston Tucker. Though Francis Ford Coppola’s ode to capitalism failed at the box office, Landau received his first Oscar nomination, followed by another in 1989’s CRIMES AND MSIDEMEANORS, Woody Allen’s dark tale. Martin is Judah Rosenthal, a philanderer who hires a hit man to kill his threatening lover (Angelica Huston), whose life criss-crosses with Allen’s filmmaker Cliff Stern.

Landau as Bela Lugosi with Johnny Depp as Ed Wood (1994)

Third time was the charm for Landau as he finally won his Oscar for Tim Burton’s 1994 ED WOOD, lovingly etching the part of horror icon Bela Lugosi. Historical inaccuracies aside, Landau gives us a touching performance as the screen’s greatest Dracula, forgotten and reduced to appearing in no-budget exploitation movies while struggling with an opiate addiction. Landau’s Bela is unforgettable, and when he won the Oscar fans stood in their living rooms and cheered not only for Landau, but for Bela Lugosi. I know I did!

More movies and television followed of varying degrees of quality. Landau always kept busy, whether teaching at his beloved Actor’s Studio or working on a film project. His last was an indie released at Tribeca this year, THE LAST POKER GAME with Paul Sorvino. Martin Landau died early Sunday morning at UCLA Medical Hospital. The Great Director has yelled “cut”, and his time before the cameras has ended.

Rest in peace, Martin Landau. An Actor’s Actor.