Gothic Art: Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA (United Artists 1940)

REBECCA is unquestionably a cinematic masterpiece. I remember watching it for the first time in a high school film class, enthralled as much by its technical aspects as the story itself. This was Alfred Hitchcock’s  first American film, though with a decidedly British flavor, and his only to win the Best Picture Oscar. There’s a lot of film noir shadings to this adaptation of Daphne DuMaurier’s  Gothic novel, as well as that distinctive Hitchcock Touch.

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”, begins Joan Fontaine’s narration, as the camera pans down a dark road overgrown with brush and weeds, fog rolling in all around, as we come up on the once majestic castle called Manderley, now lying in ruins. This first shot was all done with miniatures, another wonderful example of Hitchcock’s innovative use of the camera, looking and feeling totally believable (take that, CGI!). Flashbacks bring us to when Fontaine’s character, who’s never given a proper name in the film except “The Second Mrs. de Winter”, comes across her future husband Maxim de Winter standing at the precipice of a cliff, contemplating suicide.

Maxim of course is played by the great Laurence Olivier , as tragic a romantic Gothic hero as you’ll ever find (and I include his role as Heathcliff in the previous years WUTHERING HEIGHTS in that statement). His wife, Rebecca, has recently died in a horrible boating accident, and the brooding de Winter is in Monte Carlo trying to forget. Maxim takes a shine to the young girl, a “paid companion” to snooty Mrs. Van Hopper (Florence Bates) and, after a whirlwind courtship, asks the girl to marry him. She accepts, and the couple return to England and de Winter’s lavish estate Manderley.

The servants are all welcoming to Maxim’s new bride… all but one, that is. That would be Mrs. Danvers, head housekeeper, played to icy perfection by Judith Anderson . The ghoulish Mrs. Danvers gives the second Mrs. de Winter (and us) the creeps, as she slavishly devotes herself to Rebecca’s memory, lovingly caressing the dead woman’s clothing, keeping all her monogrammed possessions on display, and sabotaging the new bride’s costume ball. Anderson is disturbingly sinister as Mrs. Danvers, a role so iconic it’s been parodied time and again in movies and television skits, notably in 1946’s THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES, when Lou Costello says to similarly creepy housekeeper Gale Sondergaard, “Didn’t I see you in REBECCA?”.

Things take a wrong turn for Maxim when Rebecca’s body is found in a capsized boat, though he’d earlier identified his late wife’s body elsewhere. This is when the truth about Rebecca finally comes out in a scene inside a seashore cabin, Maxim among Rebecca’s old things, as he tells his new wife the real story behind Rebecca’s death (there’ll be no spoilers, just watch the movie!). Olivier is brilliant in this scene, as are Hitchcock and his cinematographer George Barnes, who won an Oscar for his work.

George Sanders is on hand as Rebecca’s “cousin” Jack Favell, a cad and a bounder who plays an integral part in the plot. Sanders always excelled in this type of role, and his Favell is one of his most memorable scoundrels. The supporting cast features such British Familiar Faces as Nigel Bruce Leo G. Carroll , Gladys Cooper, Melville Cooper, Lumsden Hare, Reginald Denny , Forrester Harvey, and C. Aubrey Smith. Franz Waxman’s haunting score is among his very best, and that’s saying a lot. Waxman was the man behind the baton for classic scores like BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, SUSPICION, HUMORESQUE, and SUNSET BOULEVARD, to name just a few.

Producer David O. Selznick and director Hitchcock had totally different approaches to filmmaking, and frequently clashed during REBECCA’s production. Hitchcock had a rocky relationship with Selznick, and in all the time he spent under contract to the producer, Selznick only used him for this, SPELLBOUND, and THE PARADINE CASE. All of the director’s other 40’s output was made on loan out until his contract expired in 1947. While the other two collaborations have their flaws, REBECCA is perfection in all respects, a film classic that has stood the test of time and essential viewing for movie lovers. You don’t come across films of this caliber very often, so if you have never seen REBECCA, I urge you to do so soon as possible. You will not be disappointed.

 

 

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Rockin’ in the Film World #11: HAVING A WILD WEEKEND (Warner Brothers 1965)

For those of you who weren’t around during the heyday of the 60’s British Invasion, The Dave Clark Five were second only to The Beatles in popularity. The group came hot on the heels of The Fab Four, appearing on Ed Sullivan for two straight weeks, and had a solid string of hits from 1964 to 1967: “Glad All Over”, “Bits & Pieces”, “Because”, “Any Way You Want It”, “Over & Over”. Yes, they were BIG, folks!  Propelled by Clark’s up-front drumming and lead singer Mike Smith’s growling vocals, The Dave Clark Five had the teenyboppers screaming in the aisles, and since A HARD DAY’S NIGHT was a smashing success, a movie starring the boys was the next logical step.

Director John Boorman

HAVING A WILD WEEKEND begins like it’s going to be a clone of that film, then turns into something completely different thanks to first-time director John Boorman, who would later give us POINT BLANK , DELIVERANCE, EXCALIBUR, and HOPE AND GLORY. Boorman sets the conventional 60’s rock film on its ear with his skewering of social conventions, sexual mores, the advertising world and the price of celebrity. Boorman’s debut is a lot bolder than something like HOLD ON (Herman’s Hermits), or even A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, and though The DC5 have long left the scene, this is a movie that can be enjoyed on its own merit.

The band play a group of “stuntboys” doing commercial work with the face of the day, model Dinah (Barbara Ferris of CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED). She’s the spokesmodel for the meat industry, with her face plastered all over England in a “Meat for Go!” ad campaign. Stuntboy Steve (Clark, a former stuntboy himself) is bored with the whole thing, and he and Dinah take off in a spiffy Jag, heading for the coast of Devon where she’s planning to buy her own personal island to get away from it all, pursued by ad exec Leon’s minions.

Their adventure takes the couple to a deserted village where they meet up with a scraggly bunch of proto-hippies who ask if they’ve got any “spliffs” or “horse”. The village is being used for maneuvers by the British Army, who start bombing the hell out of the place, forcing Steve and Dinah to split the scene on foot. They thumb a ride from a pair of upper-class dilettantes (Yootha Joyce, Robin Bailey), who try separately to seduce the youngsters, than take them to a costume party with a classic film theme, with the attendees dressed as Groucho Marx, Jean Harlow, Frankenstein’s Monster, Charlie Chaplin, and Laurel & Hardy, among others!

Steve and Dinah finally make it to her island paradise, only to discover it no longer remains an island when the tide goes out. Leon is there waiting for them, along with the press, having planted a story of Dinah being kidnapped. Soon she’s swept up in all the publicity and hoopla, and Steve, realizing the journey always far outweighs the destination, takes off with his stuntboy brethren for sunny Spain.

The DC5’s hit “Catch Us If You Can” serves as the theme song, and was the movie’s UK title. Other songs interspersed into the movie are “Having a Wild Weekend”, “Sweet Memories”, “Time”, “On the Move”, “When”, “Ol’ Sol”, “I Can’t Stand It”, and “Move On”. The Dave Clark Five didn’t have the personalities of The Beatles or The Stones, nor did they move forward musically as the decade progressed, but for a three-year span they were on top of the pop world, and HAVING A WILD WEEKEND is a true 60’s time capsule of Swingin’ London. Even if you’re not familiar with them, the film’s worth watching for Boorman’s neo-realistic take on pop culture. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, and rightly so. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite DC5 songs, “Because”, from a 1964 Ed Sullivan appearance:

Confessions of a TV Addict #3: The Marvel Super Heroes Have Arrived!

Captain America and his costumed cohorts made their television debuts way before the Marvel Cinematic Universe began dominating box offices around the world. THE MARVEL SUPER HEROES debuted in 1966, at the height of the BATMAN camp craze, with Cap, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and The Sub-Mariner the rotating stars of this limited animation series. And I do mean limited – Grantray-Lawrence Animation literally made copies of the comic book artwork of Jack ‘King’ Kirby, ‘Sturdy’ Steve Ditko, and other Bullpen artists, transferred them to film and basically just animated the character’s mouths and an occasional swinging fist!

The cartoons (and I use that term loosely) were syndicated to local stations, who filled holes in their time slots with the mighty Marvel heroes. Some stations ran them as stand-alone series, while others used the segments as part of local kid’s shows. Up here in New England, we watched on WNAC-TV (Channel 7 at the time), with an actor named Arthur Pierce dressed as Cap, constantly asking if anyone out there in TV Land had seen his pal Bucky!:

Eat yer heart out, Chris Evans!

Marvel’s Rogue’s Gallery of swingin’ super villains were also on hand.. after all, what good’s a superhero without a nefarious scheme to thwart? Baron Zemo, The Enchantress, The Mandarin, The Mole Man, Super-Skrull, and dastardly  Dr. Doom himself all made their way into the stories. The Avengers assembled in various iterations (Giant Man and The Wasp, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and The Scarlet Witch all appeared), as did mutant teen team The X-Men, called the ‘Allies for Peace’ because Grantray-Lawrence didn’t own the rights to them (the more things change….)

The voice cast was strictly unknown, with two exceptions: Sandy Becker, a New York kid’s show host and voice actor (KING LEONARDO’s Mr. Wizard, GO-GO GOPHERS), who played Cap, and actor John Vernon. That’s right, ANIMAL HOUSE’s Dean Wormer himself did the voices of Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, and the Hulk’s nemesis Major Glenn Talbot. But for me, the most memorable part of the program was the individual theme songs for each hero:

Excelsior!

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/