Saturday, 31 August 2013

Love versus duty… Blackmail (1929) at the BFI with Cyrus Gabrysch

“Hitchcock is one of the greatest inventors of form in the entire history of cinema.  …an entire moral universe has been elaborated on the basis of this form and by its very rigour.” Eric Rhomer and Claude Chabrol

Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous silent film is pretty much the last of the BFI restorations I’ve seen* and I still regret missing last year’s gala showing at the British Museum (up a mountain in Wales at the time). Tonight the restoration was shown with piano accompaniment from Cyrus Gabrysch who did this sparkling, intense, invention full justice.

Hitchcock’s last silent film was also, cleverly, his first sound film or “part-talkie”. He planned out both versions in pre-production and rather than have to over-lay sound after shooting he was prepared, with, for example, Anny Ondra’s Polish tones being replaced by the voice of Joan Barry who spoke her lines live on set, just off-camera. Blackmail therefore avoided the stilted pitfalls of many early talkies whilst at the same time it remaining one of the most accomplished British silent films and certainly one of the best of the “Hitchcock Nine”.

John Longden, Anny Ondra and Donald Calthrop
The silent film on show is not improved by sporadic sound effects and voices – it is one of Hitchcock’s most intensely dramatic tales and, along with The Lodger, best represents the style of film he spent most of his career refining.

Blackmail was adapted from Charles Bennett’s play of 1928 by Hitchcock along with Benn W. Levy and with some help from Bennett (Michael Powell also later claimed responsibility for the setting of the grand finale**).  The “vision” was entirely Hitchcock’s own from the flashing drinks ad at Piccadilly that mutates to show stabbing  knives – Alice White’s guilty obsession – to the guest appearance as “man harassed by young child on tube”.

The flying squad
The film starts with a police van surging through the London traffic and the restored film makes this window on our grandparents’ world that much clearer: street spotting reveals more as they race around the West End.

This chase mirrors one later in the film when the seemingly inexorable “process of the law” is in full swing and here we see two policemen relenetlessly closing in on a miserable looking suspect in a squalid flat.

Harvey Braban and John Longden
One of the “peelers” on patrol is Detective Frank Webber (John Longden) who is now late to meet up with his sweetheart Alice White (Anny Ondra) who is less than impressed at his tardiness (and more besides). They head off for supper at Lyons’ Corner House and after just about grabbing a table, the full extent of her discontent is revealed.

Alice has had another offer from a man who turns out to be an artist called Mr. Crewe (Cyril Ritchard) who arrives just as she is giving poor Frank the brush-off. Crewe joins Alice and the two walk out much to the jilted copper’s dismay as he glances back...

We feel for Frank at his girl’s callous double-dealing but Alice’s night has only just begun.

Alice thinks she can do better...
She and Crewe head out to his apartment where he has promised to show her his studio (oh yeah, pull the other one sonny…)… on the door step, Crewe has to speak to a man who has seemingly been waiting for him: an unsettling foretaste of what is to come.

Alice and Crewe walk up the stairs, followed flight by flight by the camera tracking their guilty progress to an inappropriate encounter.

The scene of the crime
Once in Crewe’s studio Alice loses herself in fascination of his other-wordly life, her eye being caught by his painting of a jester, who appears to laugh straight at the viewer’s gaze. She makes a few brush-strokes of her own and Crewe holds her as he completes them. Then Alice tries on a ballerina’s costume and Crewe says how much he would like to paint her…

There is no doubt that Alice is deeply intrigued by Crewe but whether she can cross the boundary of perceived good behaviour is another thing. The painter becomes increasingly emboldened and proceeds to try and take hold of what he thinks is being offered.

Alice's world is about to turn...
It’s a misunderstanding, perhaps, but Crewe cannot hold himself back... in her panic Alice grabs hold of a bread knife and strikes him down… All happens off-camera, behind a curtain leaving the struggle to the viewer’s imagination – still horribly effective.

Alice reels in shock and driven by instinct starts to cover her tracks… Ondra is quite amazing during these scenes, her face a blank mask of disbelief at her own reactions: someone who had never suspected that they could kill.

Alice is literally out of focus as she arrives home...
Alice escapes home to her parents humble newsagents round the corner just in time to be greeted by the morning comfort of her mother (Sara Allgood) bringing her tea in bed. Breakfast normality is swiftly dissolved as her father (Charles Patton) talks of the killing…

Things are about to get worse, as Frank has been put on the case and in examining the murder scene finds one of Alice’s gloves just before he turns to recognise the murdered man… He knows that Alice was with him but does he yet suspect the full extent of her involvement?

Home comfort fades...
He arrives at the newsagent and manages to return the glove to Alice: is he being loyal or opportunist? Either way a crucial third party enters the mix as the man who was waiting for Crewe arrives knowing far too much about the events.

Donald Calthrop is superb as the subtle blackmailer Tracy, so controlled when he has the upper hand but with a quicksilver shift to fright once the tables begin to turn. He enjoys the dominance his spying has bought him and gets the couple to buy him a fancy cigar and make his breakfast.

Keeping watch: Donald Calthrop
All the while we sense that Alice is nursing her guilt and preparing herself to take her punishment and yet Frank gets in the way. Curious that the policemen should be the one obstructing justice or does he see beyond to the probably circumstances of the killing: self-defence? Why is he so keen to defend this woman who had previously dumped him - can love overcome duty?

Hitchcock keeps up the suspense and the narrative moves along quickly and uncomfortably… We have to make our own judgement over whether Alice deserves or wants to “get away with it” and whether she will or not is always in doubt. Suspenseful and intense, Blackmail is the first great sustained instance of the magic Hitchcock formula.

Inside the museum... sort of.
Of course, Anny Ondra is ideally suited to conveying what Charles Barr highlights as the intense “interior qualities” of the narrative – a rare capability especially when combined with her startling features. What could she have gone on to achieve had her accent been as tame-able as Garbo’s?

Anny Ondra
The restored print is of course excellent and far better than watching the existing murky DVDs… The BFI were able to use the original negatives with a good deal of technical re-working. The print clarity also shows up the director’s use of back projections as well as the Schüfftan process which involved shooting against scale miniatures for the Museum scenes – not so impressive in this digital age perhaps but a real break-through in terms of showing characters in situ.

When the re-release happens I hope they include the sound film for comparison as well as Neil Brand's super score which went down so well at least year’s restoration premier. That’s not to say that Mr Gabrysch didn’t do a very fine job of accompanying Mr Hicthcock’s darkest silent hour (and 17 minutes… )  with his energetic classical lines seamlessly blending with the ebb and flow of the drama.

*Just Easy Virtue to go…

**Michael Powell took still photographs on the film whilst Ronald Neame operated the clapperboard...  both went on to direct a few films of their own.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Busting the fourth wall… Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Buster Keaton had to re-cut this film in response to the disappointing audience reaction at initial screenings. Regarded now as one of his finest films, Sherlock Jnr also features one of the most enduring devices in cinema – the fantasy of joining those we watch on screen.

Maybe he tries to do too much with a plot that starts off with a warning about not doing two things at once and which then jazzes its way into pure fantasy. This may have been deemed too contrived for an audience still in love with the primary fantasy of film itself: why burst their bubble?

In playing so much with form and convention, is Buster too “modern” to be “post-modern”?

You can see why this could have had a greater effect on later audiences more used to the tricks of the flicks: now we’d all like to be up there with Buster, in 1924 and in uproarious, hilarious silence…

Buster’s character is a projectionist who is training himself to be a detective – a Jack of neither trade (though as star, director* and producer, Keaton was an undoubted master of all three…).

Kathryn McGuire, Buster Keaton and a small box of chocs...
He’s desperate to buy some decent chocolates for his sweetheart (Kathryn McGuire) but he’s a dollar short… he finds one on the floor as he cleans up the cinema but a woman comes along to re-claim it, followed by another who he gives a dollar to when she says she’s also lost one, then a man arrives who refuses Buster’s dollar as he’s lost a wad of them in his wallet which he soon reclaims from the mess on the floor.

Ward Dastardly
It’s not Buster’s day but he buys the cheap chocs and writes a higher price on the back in order to impress his girl. Their canoodling is interrupted by The Local Sheik (dastardly Ward Crane) who has his eyes on the girl as well. He steals her father’s watch and pawns it for $4, just enough to buy the posh box. Sweeping into the Girl’s house he lures her into the parlour to admire his superior confectionary, leaving Buster bereft.

Now, that is a big box etc...
As the two men vie for attention, the Girl’s father discovers the theft. Sherlock Jnr steps in with the aid of his step-by-step guide to sleuthing… Sadly things don’t work out for Buster as the Sheik has dropped his pawn ticket into his pocket. It’s discovered and the poor boy is banished from the house in shame, the Sheik sneers in triumph and the Girl cries in sorrow.

Stop and search
Sherlock follows the Sheik but is lured onto a freight train by the wily huckster. He escapes through the roof and as the train moves past a water pump, catches a ride and drifts gracefully down onto the tracks, before being slammed onto the rails by the force of the water.

This particular trick resulted in Keaton fracturing his neck. He only discovered this many years on: ignoring the pain at the time, Buster simply carried on.

Clinging on to the water tower
Sherlock returns to his night-job and as the film rolls in the projection booth, he drifts off into sleep. His body splits as his dream-self awakes and reality shifts. Dream Buster watches the film as the characters begin to take on familiar shapes… The Girl becomes a flapper who is being romanced by a smart-suited version of the Sheik who it transpires is involved in a plot to steal a string of priceless pearls.

The watched, watches...
Outraged, Dream Buster walks down the aisle, onto the stage and straight into the picture.

Not content with his initial optical illusion, Keaton hits his audience with more and more outrageous shifts in scenery as his screen-on-screen self is transported from the house to the garden then onto a mountain and into a jungle… His film within a film life is naturally now subject to the logic of cinema.

The pearls are stolen and an altogether more convincing Sherlock Jnr arrives to solve the case: in his dreams he is the real deal. The screen-Sheik and his accomplice (Erwin Connelly) try to kill him but he’s too smart, out-foxing them in a game of explosive pool.

A change of scene
They kidnap the Girl and Buster eludes the gangsters by diving through a window immediately into an old maid’s clothes and from there through his assistant and a wall…the logic of film dreaming. He ends up sitting on a motorcycle handlebar as it narrowly misses a steam train at a level crossing – an amazing stunt that must have required meticulous planning and brave precision.

Dreaming onwards, the Girl is naturally rescued but in the real world she is the rescuer, investigating the identity of the man who really pawned the watch, and greeting the somnambulistic projectionist with the good news as he awakes.

Buster's bravest?
Written by Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez and Joseph A. Mitchell, no doubt with contributions from Keaton, Sherlock Jnr is a classic of comedy composition with a high-energy performance from its lead. It has some of the definitive Keaton moments but for all its ingenuity perhaps lacks the soul of The Cameraman or the narrative pull of The General. It is a very funny delight, stopping a couple of teenagers in their tracks for 45 minutes as well as their old man.

Buster still works. It’s his movement and his daring but especially his persona, which accepts his lot and yet still fights against it. Here his knowing inclusiveness takes an extraordinary additional quality as he moves into a world within a world. Lost in cinema he still battles his way back and, to save time, the Girl wins him! Buster was an equal opportunities silent film maker.

He is aided by a stirring score on the new Blu-ray provided by the Monte Alto Orchestra. This is arguably more sympathetic than the Club Foot Orchestra’s post-modern messe of Bond and more contemporary soundtrack references on the old DVD: Keaton’s comedy doesn’t need this kind of modernisation… it still connects.

The Blu-ray print is sharp as a needle and a big step up from the DVD I’ve previously watched, it also includes Three Ages and is available direct from Kino Lorber or from Amazon.

*There was un-credited directorial assistance from Roscoe Arbuckle who was persona non grata by this stage even though wholly innocent after his tragic trial.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Farmer's Wife (1928) at the BFI with Neil Brand

As a new soccer season gets underway, the Brits begin to obsess about player stats: how many passes,  tackles, “assists” and so on. Statistics of a different kind featured in Charles Barr’s introductory notes* to this screening of the restored The Farmer’s Wife at the BFI.

He points out that some 10% of the shots in this film feature some sort of camera mobility as compared with 2-3% for The Lodger and less than 2% for Hitchcock’s previous film The Ring. Both films have more dramatic impact and better reputations: yet their directorial play-maker was on more cinematically-varied form for this entertaining romantic comedy.

The wedding party
The Farmer’s Wife was based on a very successful play by British novelist, poet and playwright Eden Phillpotts, yet Hitchcock’s production moves the action well beyond the imagined stage. At one point the camera follows Lillian Hall-Davis’ character as she distributes refreshments around a wedding party; it pulls the viewer into the screen and energises what could be formalistic. Great work from cinematographer Jack E. Cox, as well as his multi-tasking director from his own account…

Whilst showing the director’s debt to German cinema in general (and Murnau in particular), it also shows how quickly Hitchcock was beginning to develop his approach in what presents as a confident and well-made commercial feature with enough tricks and turns to still impress.

The restoration – superb as usual – obviously helps and the film looks pretty much as clear as it would have done on first showing. It is suffused with Hitchcock’s earthy humour and comes with a roster of quirky characters who run rings around the main protagonist and still, er, ring true.

So, if The Farmer’s Wife is Hitchcock playing it safe and going for commercial goals, he has a funny way of showing it…. and this is indeed one of the funniest silent films I’ve seen that’s not a straight-ahead comedy (most rom-coms being rather lacking in the “com” part…).

Looking out in hope and back in... despair
Eliot Stannard adapted the play and together with Hitchcock helped speed the story up by stripping down the extraneous elements. Very quickly the location and main characters are established as farmer Samuel Sweetland (Jameson Thomas) stares out of his bedroom window into glorious countryside. His countenance shifts as he meets the eyes of his handyman, Churdles Ash (Gordon Harker) and the camera cuts to the interior as he walks away from the window towards his bed in which his wife is clearly dying. Surrounded by friends and their staff, she counsels their housekeeper, Araminta Dench (lovely Lillian Hall-Davis) to always air her master’s long-johns… the camera cuts away to reveal said undergarments in a variety of “airing” situations… it’s going to be that kind of film.

Next we’re shown the wedding of Sweetland’s daughter - "Tibby" (Mollie Ellis) – which gives her father pause for thought: is it time for him to re-discover love and to replace the irreplaceable. The wedding banquet is well filmed building on the camera-fluidity and introducing the cast of grotesques who will drive the bulk of the comedic action.

A little list...
Being a practical man, Samuel, draws up a list with the aid of the hyper-organised and endlessly patient, housekeeper – “Minta” (a purely naturalistic performance from Lovely Hall-Davis). He seems to have forgotten the missing ingredient for his quest but comes up with the four singletons of a certain age who broadly meet his criteria.

Jameson Thomas with Louie Pounds and Maud Gill
First up in his quest is the independently-minded Widow Windeatt (Louie Pounds) who whilst being friendly enough feels that she would be too strong willed to be suitable for the proposed merger of interests. As she offers her hand in masculine sympathy, Sweetland is angry enough to take a swipe.

Next is the shrew-like Thirza Tapper (Maud Gill) who tells the farmer that he is the first to pass her “sex test” in proposing marriage even though she has no ambitions in the matrimonial arena (another cold, asexual character?).

But surely, Sweetland can’t fail with the voluble Postmistress Mary Hearn (Olga Slade) who appeared more than friendly at his daughter’s reception. But it’s not to be, he’s far “too old” for her and she proceeds to laugh herself into hysterics, waiving her arms about in a childish frenzy.

Olga Slade then Ruth Maitland
Each time Sweetland returns to discuss his knock-backs with Minta who, it becomes increasingly clear, has feelings for him of her own. Given the alternatives on offer it’s a mystery why the big penny hasn’t dropped, but perhaps he views his housekeeper as out-of-bounds (even one who looks like Lovely Hall-Lovely…).

Sweetland steals himself for one last try with Mercy Bassett the pub landlady (Ruth Maitland) and all seems to be going swimmingly as they chat away plying each other with drinks…

The penny drops
But he returns home carrying another defeat and sits in the parlour opposite the chair his wife used to occupy. He imagines each of the candidates in her place and none can really pass muster… Minta sits down to help think it all through and then the scales are finally lifted from Samuel’s eyes as we knew they always would be…

That’s not quite it but, needless to say Lovely Lovely-Lovely’s acting the moments of Minta’s own realisation are genuinely moving. It’s no surprise that Lillian was Hitchcock’s favourite actress, she is a  graceful wonder who combined expert timing with controlled and nuanced expression: perfect for the medium.

Isn't she?
Jameson Thomas also rips into the role of the widower who finally re-learns how to love and whilst he gets most of the laughs he also manages to convey the conflicted loneliness at the heart of his character.

Needless to say, Gordon Harker is also superb as the grotesquely curdled Churdles Ash – I felt like cheering every time he came on screen.

Hurrah for Harker!
Excellent accompaniment was provided by Neil Brand who’s sure-footed improvisations where also used in last year’s restoration premier. Mr Brand expertly matched Hitchcock’s tone throughout and the central theme helped bring a tear to my eye (along with Ms Hall-Davis) at the end.

No news on a DVD release but surely it’s coming. The version currently available from Studio Canal isn’t too bad, as you can see from some of the screen shots, but the restored version, like all of the others, is the one you simply must see.

*Taken from his book English Hitchcock (1999)