Action in the Alps: WHERE EAGLES DARE (MGM 1969)

Alistair MacLean’s adventure novels, filled with muscular action and suspenseful plot twists, thrilled moviegoers of the 60’s and 70’s in such big budget hits as THE GUNS OF NAVARONE and ICE STATION ZEBRA. In his first foray into screenwriting, 1969’s WHERE EAGLES DARE,  he adapted his own work to the silver screen, resulting in one of the year’s biggest hits, aided by the box office clout of Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood . The film’s a bit long, running over two and a half hours, but action fans won’t mind. There’s enough derring-do, ace stunt work, explosions, and cliffhanging (literally!) to keep you riveted to the screen!

A lot of the credit goes to veteran stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt, in charge of all the action scenes as second unit director. Canutt staged some of the most exciting scenes in film history, from John Ford’s STAGECOACH to William Wyler’s BEN HUR, and certainly keeps things busy here. Director Brian G. Hutton was a former actor whose directing debut was 1965’s THE WILD SEED, starring the late Michael Parks . He and top British cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson worked together to beautifully frame every shot, and the spectacular view of the Austrian Alps (substituting for Bavaria) is breathtaking to behold. Hutton would work with Eastwood the following year on KELLY’S HEROES; he also helmed Frank Sinatra’s comeback THE FIRST DEADLY SIN and the 1983 Tom Selleck adventure HIGH ROAD TO CHINA.

A crack team of British commandos, led by Major Jonathan Smith (Burton) and American OSS Lt. Morris Schaffer (Eastwood), is assigned a dangerous mission. American General Carnaby, who holds important information about the upcoming European Second Front, has been captured by the Germans and is being held in the impregnable Schloss Adler (Castle Eagle) high in the Bavarian Alps. The team is tasked with raiding the castle and freeing Carnaby before the Nazis force him to talk. The seven men parachute down into the frozen tundra (one doesn’t make it), but there’s another member known only to Smith… British agent Mary Ellison (Mary Ure). In addition to the nearly impossible odds against them, Smith and Schaffer must contend with a murderer within their ranks!

Burton looks like he’s having fun playing Smith, a comic book hero to rival Nick Fury. Clint is cold as the Bavarian snow playing the assassin Schaffer, mowing down Nazis with the greatest of ease. The two men have a good chemistry, and I got a kick out of when Burton gets off a line calling Eastwood “a second-rate punk”. Mary Ure is right in on the action, machine gunning Nazis side by side with Clint. Why this woman was never a Bond Girl is a mystery to me! The plot, like all of MacLean’s works, takes many twists and turns along the way to get to the real reason for the mission, and you’ll enjoy trying to figure out what’s going to happen next.

There’s an odd connection among the supporting cast: all are noted for their roles in horror films! First, there’s everyone’s favorite Hammer vampire (sorry, Mr. Lee!) Ingrid Pitt , of THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and COUNTESS DRACULA fame, playing Heidi the barmaid/spy. Pitt’s part is small but pivotal to the story, and she’s a welcome presence in any film. Patrick Wymark’s (Col. Turner) horror resume includes THE SKULL, THE PSYCHOPATH, and BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW, among others. Anton Diffring (Nazi Col. Kramer) was in THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, CIRCUS OF HORRORS, MARK OF THE DEVIL PT. II, and THE BEAST MUST DIE. Shakespearean actor Michael Horden (Adm. Rolland) had roles in THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY and THEATRE OF BLOOD. Donald Houston (Capt. Christensen) played Dr. Watson opposite John Neville’s Sherlock Holmes, hunting Jack the Ripper in A STUDY IN TERROR. Houston also appeared in TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS and CLASH OF THE TITANS. Ferdy Mayne (Nazi Gen. Rosenmeyer) is best known as Count von Krolock in Roman Polanski’s THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS. Robert Beatty (Gen. Carnaby) was featured in SECRETS OF DR. MABUSE and Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. And Derren Nesbitt (Gestapo Maj. von Hopper) starred as one of the grave robbers in the little seen BURKE AND HARE.

WHERE EAGLES DARE has plenty of action, exciting stunt work, is marvelously shot, and will whet any action lover’s appetite. It should be viewed on a big screen, where I saw it upon release, but is worth watching on “the telly”, as they say in jolly olde England. If you’re unfamiliar with Alistair MacLean’s adventure stories, you can begin here, or THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, ICE STATION ZEBRA, WHEN EIGHT BELLS TOLL, BREAKHEART PASS…  just steer clear of FORCE 10 FROM NAVARONE!

 

 

Rocky Mountain High: THE NAKED SPUR (MGM 1953)

 

 

(By sheer coincidence, this post coincides with the birthday of character actor Millard Mitchell (1903-1953), who plays Tate in the film. Happy birthday, Millard! This one’s for you!)  

James Stewart and Anthony Mann  moved from Universal-International to MGM, and from black & white to Technicolor, for THE NAKED SPUR, the third of their quintet of Westerns together. The ensemble cast of five superb actors all get a chance to shine, collectively and individually, creating fully fleshed out characters against the natural beauty of the Colorado backdrop.

Bitter Howard Kemp, whose wife sold their ranch and ran off while he was serving in the war, is hunting down killer Ben Vandergroat for the $5,000 bounty in hopes of rebuilding his life. Along the trail he meets old prospector Jesse Tate and recently discharged (dishonorably) Lt. Roy Anderson. The trio manages to capture Vandergroat, but he’s not alone… he’s accompanied by pretty wildcat Lina Patton. Now they must cross the dangerous Colorado territory to bring the outlaw back to Kansas, encountering danger and treachery at every turn, as Ben tries to drive a wedge of greed between them.

Lanky Jimmy Stewart plays Kemp as a conflicted man, at turns downright mean yet developing feelings for the untamed Lina. She’s played by Janet Leigh , the daughter of Ben’s dead outlaw buddy torn between loyalty to him and her growing fondness for Kemp. Though Lina’s a wild, feisty  young woman, she shows tenderness towards him when he’s wounded during an Indian attack. She cries as Kemp callously shoots her sick horse, not wanting to be slowed down in bringing his prisoner to justice, yet isn’t willing to let Ben kill him. Stewart and Leigh bring great depth to these two contradictory, all too human characters.

Robert Ryan  has a field day as the snickering, scheming Vandergroat,  using Lina to seduce Kemp, tricking gold-fevered Tate into freeing him, and working on everybody’s baser emotions to his advantage. Ryan gets all the good lines (“Money splits better two ways ‘stead of three”), and makes a charming sociopath. Ralph Meeker’s   Lt. Anderson thinks he’s a charmer too, putting the make on Leigh’s character from the get-go, and that Indian attack I mentioned earlier is a direct result of Anderson taking liberties (to put it nicely) with the daughter of the tribe’s chief. Meeker’s character is driven by lust, for both money and women, and the actor does well in the part.

Character actor Millard Mitchell plays the grizzled old Tate, who’s been searching for a gold strike for decades without success. His obsession with striking it rich is his weakness and ultimately his downfall when he finally breaks his word and attempts to aid Vandergroat. Mitchell played opposite Stewart in Mann’s WINCHESTER ’73, and enhanced many a classic film with his talent: KISS OF DEATH, THIEVES’ HIGHWAY, TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, THE GUNFIGHTER. He was the marshal in THE GUNFIGHTER and studio boss R. F. Simpson in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, and an actor who deserves more recognition for his contributions to cinema.

There are no true heroes in the script by Harold Jack Bloom and Sam Rolfe, only five disparate characters thrown together by fate, a theme closer to Mann’s early work in film noir than the wild west. Both writers would go on to create popular TV shows; Rolfe was the man behind THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E and Bloom co-created the hit EMERGENCY!. William C. Mellor’s stunning outdoor photography provides the perfect picture of man vs. nature, both the terrain and his own baser instincts. Bronislaw Kaper’s score adds immensely to the film’s overall mood. Anthony Mann is in top form here, guiding his ensemble through their paces with a strong hand. THE NAKED SPUR is grand entertainment, and has gotten even better over time. This is a film that bares repeated viewings to absorb all that’s going on, and not to be missed!

Sail Away: John Wayne in John Ford’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (United Artists 1940)

This is my third year participating in the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film , and second entry spotlighting Big John Wayne . The Duke and director John Ford made eleven films together, from 1939’s STAGECOACH to 1963’s DONOVAN’S REEF.  Wayne’s role in the first as The Ringo Kid established him as a star presence to be reckoned with, and the iconic actor always gave credit to his mentor Ford for his screen success. I recently viewed their second collaboration, 1940’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME, a complete departure for Wayne as a Swedish sailor on a tramp steamer, based on four short plays by Eugene O’Neill, and was amazed at both the actor’s performance and the technical brilliance of Ford and his cinematographer Gregg Toland  , the man behind the camera for Welles’ CITIZEN KANE.

THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is a seafaring saga detailing the lives of merchant marines aboard the ship Glencairn  on the cusp of World War II. The film is episodic in nature, as screenwriter Dudley Nichols wove the four one-act plays into a cohesive narrative. Duke is ‘Ole’ Olsen (no relation to the great vaudevillian), a sweet-natured young buck longing to return to his homeland and his elderly mother. Ole is a gentle giant of a man, whom the hardened sailors look out for, treating him as a kid brother. The naïve Ole has been out at sea ten years, trapped as the others are in a cycle of time on the ocean followed by spending all their dough on liquor and women when they hit port, forcing them to return to their cruel master the sea. This time around, they’re determined to make sure Ole gets back to his farm in Sweden, to break free of the lifestyle they are all caught in by fate and misfortune.

Wayne’s much-maligned Swedish accent isn’t all that bad, as some critics have harped on. Duke was nervous about doing the part justice, and had Danish actress Osa Massen (A WOMAN’S FACE, YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH) coach him with the rhythm and cadence of the language. His big scene at the bar, where he’s being set up to be shanghaied by the ship Amindra’s salty crew, shows Wayne’s accent was more than passable, and once again proves to the audience he could do more than just sit tall in the saddle and throw a mean punch at the bad guys. John Wayne, when the occasion called for it, could act.

Due to the structure of the screenplay however, Wayne doesn’t have to carry the film on his broad shoulders. Though ‘Ole’ is the glue that holds the film together, the rest of the ensemble all take their turns in the spotlight. The standout here is Thomas Mitchell , winner of the previous year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for STAGECOACH, as the boisterous veteran seaman Driscoll, a two-fisted Irishman whose sad fate at film’s end will haunt you. Ian Hunter, an underappreciated actor, plays the role of Smitty, whom the others suspect of being a Nazi spy, but instead harbors another dark secret. Ward Bond , the rowdy Yank, is given a solemn death bed scene, and gets a chance to show off his own acting chops. Barry Fitzgerald seems to be preparing for his role as Micheleen in THE QUIET MAN as Cocky. Fitzgerald’s brother Arthur Shields is the philosophical Donkeyman, who never leaves the ship for fear of triggering his alcoholism. Mildred Natwick makes her film debut as the prostitute Freda, charged with the task of seducing Ole before he’s shanghaied. John Qualen does his own inimitable Swedish part as Axel, mentor and protector to Ole. Familiar Faces Billy Bevan, Danny Borzage, James Flavin, J.M. Kerrigan, Wifred Lawson, Cyril McLaglen (brother of Victor), Jack Pennick, and Joe Sawyer round out the rugged cast; most were members in good standing of Ford’s stock company.

The real star of THE LONG VOYAGE HOME is Gregg Toland, who Ford had compete trust in to create the film’s visual mood. Toland’s experimental deep-focus style, utilizing back projection, makes the film an illusion of reality, his heavy shadows and dramatic lighting schemes a definite precursor to what would become the film noir style. John Ford was no stranger to making art films, and together with Toland certainly achieves success. Orson Welles once said he watched STAGECOACH over 40 times before filming CITIZEN KANE; there’s no doubt in my mind he did the same with THE LONG VOYAGE HOME.

While it’s not the type of film one would normally associate with the John Wayne/John Ford canon, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME should be watched by fans of both men’s work. The somber mood is laced with black humor, the cast is superb, Toland’s influential camerawork is a marvel to behold, and it’s a chance to see a different side of John Wayne. Sandwiched between STAGECOACH and THE GRAPES OF WRATH, THE LONG VOYAGE HOME doesn’t get the attention the other two attract, but deserves a place in the pantheon of John Ford’s masterful film classics.

Happy 100th Birthday Robert Mitchum!: THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (United Artists 1955)

Regular readers know I’m a big fan of Big Bob Mitchum, having covered nine of his classic films. The self-effacing Mitchum always downplayed his talents in interviews, but his easy-going, naturalistic style and uncanny ear for dialect made him one of the screen’s most watchable stars. Whether a stoic film noir anti-hero, a rugged soldier fighting WWII, a romantic lead, or a malevolent villain, Mitchum always delivered the goods. Last night I watched THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER for the first time, and his performance as the murderous ‘Reverend’ Harry Powell just zoomed to the top of my list of marvelous Mitchum performances.

Mitchum’s Powell is totally amoral and totally crazy, a sociopathic killer who talks to God about killing women, those “perfume smelling things, lacy things, things with curly hair” that The Lord hates, according to Harry. He’s sexually repressed to the point he must murder in the name of God to find release, and believes God provides for his evangelism by pointing him toward widows with money to act as sacrifices. Powell is by turns charming and savage, ingratiating himself to the townspeople with his pious act in public, cold as the devil’s tail privately. His hands are tattooed with the words “Love” and “Hate”, enabling him to sermonize on the duality of man’s nature:

Listen to Mitchum’s pitch-perfect vocal cadence; he could fit right in as a cable network Southern preacher right now! The Rev has come to this idyllic West Virginia town after being incarcerated for car theft. His cellmate was Ben Harper ( Peter Graves ), a Depression Era man who robbed a bank to feed his family and killed two people in the process. Before being hanged, Harper let slip where he stashed the $10,000 from the crime. Only his two children know the secret, and Powell has ventured forth to do God’s work by finding out where the money’s hid. He woos and wins Harper’s widow Willa ( Shelley Winters ), but Harper’s son John immediately recognizes Powell for what he is, a con man come to steal the ill-gotten gains Dad left behind.

Mitchum creates such a chilling character in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, you’ll have no reason to cheer for him. On his wedding night, he berates his new bride for her carnal instincts, later murdering her with his switchblade in their bedroom after she learns the truth about him. The bedroom itself is designed to resemble a cathedral, their bed a sacrificial altar. He cajoles and threatens the kids, growling and howling like an animal, eyes blazing from their sockets like the devil himself. It’s a portrait of pure evil straight out of a horror movie, and Robert Mitchum proves all his talk about being a “one-note actor” was just blarney. But that’s Mitchum being Mitchum, a true artist who was so good at what he did he made it look easy.

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was the only film directed by another great actor, Charles Laughton , who used the expressionistic style of silent film directors like F.W. Murnau and especially D.W. Griffith, to the point of casting Griffith star Lillian Gish in the pivotal role of Rachael Cooper, a farm widow who takes in stray youngsters, and becomes the salvation for the Harper children. Miss Gish stands toe-to-toe with Mitchum both in her character and in the acting department, the “Love” to Harry Powell’s “Hate”. The entire cast is superb, with James Gleason a standout as alcoholic “Uncle” Birdie, who discovers Willa’s body at the bottom of the Ohio River. Don Beddoe , Gloria Castillo, and Evelyn Varden also shine in their minor parts.

The film wasn’t well received at the time of its release, and a disheartened Laughton never directed another film. It’s our loss, as his baroque stylings made THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER a masterpiece of cinematic art. Today it’s regarded as a true classic, and the performance of Robert Mitchum has a lot to do with that. Along with his Max Cady in CAPE FEAR, Mitchum embodies evil unlike any other actor in film. Happy 100th birthday Bob; here’s to 100 more years of audiences enjoying your wonderful work!

For more on Mitchum this 100th birthday anniversary, follow these links:

OUT OF THE PAST (1947)

WHERE DANGER LIVES (1950)

HOLIDAY AFFAIR (1949)

HIS KIND OF WOMAN (1951)

MACAO (1952)

ANGEL FACE (1952)

THE RACKET (1951)

THUNDER ROAD (1958)

THE SUNDOWNERS (1960)

 

Windmills of Your Mind: Alfred Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (United Artists 1940)

(When Maddy Loves Her Classic Films invited me to join in on the Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon, I jumped at the chance! I’ve just completed the Ball State/TCM 50 YEARS OF HITCHCOCK course, and have been knee-deep in his movies for a month now!)

Alfred Hitchcock’s second American film found the Master of Suspense back in the spy game with FORGEIGN CORRESPONDENT, this time with American star Joel McCrea caught up in those familiar “extraordinary circumstances” we’ve all come to love. Like REBECCA that same year, this film was nominated for Best Picture, an extraordinary circumstance indeed for a director new to these shores. Offhand I can only think of three other directors to hold that distinction – John Ford (also in ’40), Sam Wood (1942), and Francis Ford Coppola (1974). Good company, to say the least! (And please correct me if I’m wrong, any of you film fans out there).

Crime beat reporter Johnny Jones (McCrea) is sent to Europe to cover the impending war with a fresh set of eyes. Given the rather pretentious pen name ‘Huntley Haverstock’, Johnny goes to London and meets up with fellow reporter Stebbins (Robert Benchley), who has a weakness for booze and women. He’s assigned to cover the Universal Peace Party’s big conference, where Dutch diplomat Van Meer (Oscar nominee Albert Basserman), who holds the key to peace or war in Europe, is scheduled to appear. Van Meer doesn’t show, but Johnny does meet the UPP’s leader Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall) and his beautiful daughter Carol (Laraine Day), and of course Red-Blooded American wolf Johnny tries to put the make on her!

Next stop: Holland, where Van Meer is to make an important speech, only to be shot dead on the steps of the conference hall. The chase is on, with Johnny tracking the assassin, with help from Carol and reporter Scott ffolliot (George Sanders, on the good guy’s side for a change), to an old windmill. It’s there Johnny discovers Van Meer alive but not well, drugged by a nest of rotten spies! Johnny returns with the police, only to find the windmill deserted except for a tramp. What happened to Van Meer? Who’s behind the spy ring? You’ll have to watch to find out!

One of Hitchcock’s motivations for coming to America was the chance to work with top Hollywood stars, and in Joel McCrea he got an actor at the height of his success. Already a star with films like DEAD END and UNION PACIFIC under his belt, McCrea’s everyman persona would serve him well in the decade to come. Here, he’s Hitchcock’s “stranger in a strange land”, in over his head with all this foreign spy business, but comes through in typical All-American hero style. Laraine Day’s career was just getting off the ground, having costarred in the MGM DR. KILDARE series, and she and Joel make a fine romantic duo, once things get going.

Humorist Benchley had a hand in the screenplay along nine other writers, both credited (Benchley, Charles Bennett, Joan Harrison, James Hilton) and uncredited (Harold Clurman, Ben Hecht, John Howard Lawson, John Lee Mahan, Richard Maibaum), and adds his dry wit to the proceedings. Sanders shines as the secondary lead, and German actor Basserman deserved his nomination. Herbert Marshall had appeared in Hitchcock’s MURDER! ten years earlier; his role as Fisher is among his best. Kris Kringle himself, Edmund Gwenn plays an assassin hired to off McCrea. Their scene together atop Westminister Cathedral is just one of the film’s many highlights. There are lots of other Familiar Faces in this game of cat-and-mouse: Eduardo Cianelli , Harry Davenport, Charles Halton, Holmes Herbert, Leonard Mudie, Barbara Pepper , Charles Wagenheim, and Ian Wolfe . And of course Hitch in his traditional cameo!

There are so many ‘Hitchcock Touches’ in FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT, it could be a primer on how to make a Hitchcockian thriller! Van Meer’s secret “Treaty Clause #27” is the film’s McGuffin, vital to the characters yet meaningless in terms of plot. Danger in high places is covered with McCrea climbing out his hotel window to escape two ersatz cops (then the scene turns into a crowded chaos direct from A NIGHT AT THE OPERA!), and later on the eventful plane ride. Danger in public places comes in both the murder on the conference hall steps and inside those ominous windmills. There are comedic bits with Benchley (and with McCrea having trouble holding on to his hat), mirror images, winding staircases, and Hitchcock’s sure sign of portending doom, birds! All this, plus a stirring call to arms by McCrea at the conclusion, adds up to one of Hitchcock’s most entertaining films. Just think, this was only his second in his new adopted homeland! Many more classics were to come, but FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT remains one of my personal Hitchcock favorites.

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.

 

 

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.