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Foreign Correspondent (1940)

1138Foreign Correspondent was the second movie that Alfred Hitchcock made in American, following the Gothic, psychological romance Rebecca with a WWII thriller. Actually, the film is only somewhat a WWII thriller. Take out the epilogue and one would hardly know, though there’s a lot of talk about a coming war in Europe.

The editor of the New York Globe – Powers (Harry Davenport) – is frustrated with his foreign correspondents in Europe. All they can give him is speculation about the coming of war with no hard facts. It’s driving him nuts, so he chooses Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) to go to Europe, a scrappy journalist who got into a fight with a policeman in pursuit of a story and has no particular agenda or political bent.

“What Europe needs is a fresh, unused mind,” Powers observes. So Johnny Jones is sent to Amsterdam with a new name – Huntley Haverstock, provided by Powers – and orders to interview a Dutch politician named Van Meer (Albert Basserman), who is central to the negotiations for peace. Johnny is also put into contact with the British Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), who is head of the Universal Peace Party, which is about to hold an important conference. In the meantime, Johnny also falls in love with Fisher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day)

In many ways, Foreign Correspondent feels similar to North By Northwest. Simple American gets mixed up in foreign intrigue and is on the run. Van Meer is assassinated….no, wait… he’s actually abducted. There is a secret clause to a peace treaty that the villains (it’s not mentioned, but they are understood to be Nazis) wish to know from Van Meer. The plot is, however, unlike North By Northwest in that there is a lot of it, a lot of characters and it’s a bit confusing at times.

But the film itself is extremely entertaining, full of wit, with some terrific thrills and memorable scenes and a cast that has a lot to offer. I’ve always loved Herbert Marshall’s voice and as Fisher he makes an excellent, unexpected villain. The secret is that his character is really German (was his name originally Fischer…he just dropped the c?). But he’s a villain with one, glaring weakness. He loves his daughter and in some ways, he’s one of Hitchcock’s least evil villains. He even gets to have a heroic end.

George Sanders also gets to play against type…this time as a good guy. Scott folliott (when his ancestor lost his head to Henry VIII, his ancestor’s wife dropped the capital letter to”commemorate the occasion”). He’s a journalist, too, one of those daring young British types who always makes a joke in the face of danger.

Edmund Gwenn gets a delightful role as Rowley, a cockney assassin who keeps trying to kill Johnny without sucess. Robert Benchley makes an appearance as a dyspeptic correspondent who is now reduced to drinking milk and taking pills and Albert Basserman is the heartfelt voice of the little people against the fascists (his speech in defiance of the Nazis in the middle of the film always drew applause in 1940).

Joel McCrea is one of those actors I seem to like the more I see him. He’s not a flashy actor – I’ve heard him called the poor man’s Gary Cooper, which seems unfair – but he has a central integrity, charm, capable of snark, but also of sweetness…also sincerity, without ever taking himself too seriously. He always seems willing for a joke to be at his expense and to look a little silly. He’s more of an every man than Cary Grant, but a bit more articulate than Gary Cooper.

Laraine Day is not your typical Hitchcock blonde heroine, but the film’s all the better for it. She’s one of the most normal, well-adjusted of all Hitchcock’s heroines (despite having a Nazi for a father)  and the romance between McCrea and Day is unusually sweet for a Hitchcock film.

There are also some wonderful scenes that are very unique to Hitchcock. An assassination in the driving rain, on the steps to a building, then darting away underneath a sea of umbrellas. Sneaking around the inside of a curiously expressionistic windmill. A plane crash in the middle of an ocean. Escape from assassins through a bathroom window in nothing but underwear and a robe.

There are a few moments that mark the film out as having been made specifically during WWII, such as Albert Basserman’s role as Van Meer. But the prevailing ethos is that of Johnny and Scott ffoliott as reporters out for a scoop…somewhat like His Girl Friday. Theoretically, they’re doing it for patriotic reasons, but mostly their just doing it because they’re reporters and they’ve happened on the biggest scoop short of a declaration of war (which does come in the middle of the film). It is Carol and her father who are the ones motivated by patriotism (though admittedly patriotism to separate countries).

The ending, however, is the most striking example of a wartime message. It was added after the end of the film’s shooting and when real-life London was under attack from German air raids. In the film, Johnny is giving the news via radio to America when an air raid occurs and the lights go out and he is forced to modify his message, exhorting America to keep the lights burning, so to speak. It is a direct appeal from Britain to America in 1940, though America wouldn’t get into the war until the end of 1941.

This post was written for The Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon. Thanks so much to Coffee, Classics, & Craziness for hosting!!! Be sure to read all the other posts on Hitchcock.

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Posted by on August 13, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Razor’s Edge (1946)

The-Razors-Edge-1946-posterMy local library recently acquired The Razor’s Edge and since it’s a small library and DVDs of classic movies seem to appear and disappear mysteriously, I thought I had better watch it while I could. And, actually, I enjoyed it more than I anticipated. The cast is excellent and although the middle gets silly, I sympathized with Tyrone Power’s character.

The movie is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel of the same name, published in 1944. The novel is narrated by Maugham himself as though he were meeting the characters of his story and in the movie he is played by Herbert Marshall. The character who Maugham is chiefly interested in is Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power), who has just returned from WWI. But although he is engaged to socialite Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney) and offered work by the millionaire Gray Maturin (John Payne), Larry is not sure what he wants to do. Isabel’s uncle, Elliott Templeton (Cliffton Webb), thinks he’s a bum.

But Isabel is smart enough to realize that Larry’s not going to settle down until he finds peace of mind and agrees to wait while Larry takes time off to “loaf,” as he calls it. He goes to Paris, seeking to discover what the meaning of life is and what it means to be alive and why he is alive (his friend died saving his life during the war). But although he finds some answers –  he knows for certain that he does not want to make earning money his standard of achievement – he’s still searching. He asks Isabel to marry him, but although she’s crazy about him, she can’t imagine living the life he wants to live, without wealth, without society, and she refuses him and marries Gray Maturin instead. In the meantime, Larry’s search leads him to India, where he feels like he’s come much closer to the answers he’s looking for. He returns to Paris, but finds his childhood friend, Sophie (Anne Baxter) now self-destructing with alcohol after losing her husband and child in a car crash. Larry wants to help Sophie, but Isabel grows jealous and concerned.

Although Larry is the main character, The Razor’s Edge provides a tableaux of characters and their intersecting lives. The film covers over ten years (beginning with the roaring twenties with the cult of making wealth that Larry rejects to the crash of ’29, were Gray loses everything and Isabel ruefully reflects that she is now as poor as she would have been with Larry. Somerset Maugham, as played by Herbert Marshall, is a sympathetic man, though often wryly amused by people, who can generally see through their pretenses, but admires Larry’s quest in life. He is also the only person Isabel will talk frankly with, partly because he can see through her anyway.

Herbert Marshall, John Payne, Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power

Herbert Marshall, John Payne, Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power

Isabel is a good role for Gene Tierney, not evil, but selfish and puts her love of Larry before anything (though she tries to make Gray happy and seems to succeed well enough). It seems like she loves Larry more than Larry ever loved her (she was the one who pursued him in the first place). And although she is smart enough to realize in the beginning that Larry needs time to sort things out, she never does see that the two of them want different things in life. Were she crosses the line is in her jealousy of Sophie, who becomes engaged to Larry. She doesn’t exactly sabotage Sophie, but she makes it easy for Sophie to relapse…with disastrous results for Sophie.

Anne Baxter earned an academy award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Sophie, who begins the film passionately in love with her husband (though there are hints that she likes her drinks a little too much) and goes completely to pieces after he dies. She’s partially a parallel character to Larry. Both are wounded people who lived when someone close to them died and don’t know how to go on. He responds by trying to find the reason for living, but she does not even try. It seems to hurt her too much to even face it. And ultimately there is some truth to Isabel’s assertion that Sophie doesn’t want to be helped.

The film is extremely earnest in tone, though it is lightened by the presence of Clifton Webb and one scene with Elsa Lanchester (who made me wish she was in the film more). Webb’s Elliott Templeton is a snob of snobs, but as the film goes on one realizes that he is also kind and generous, and rather vulnerable at core (he’s often ridiculous and in his heart, I think he knows it).

But the heart of the film is Larry’s quest and the film tends to be vague on this point. We hear that he has learned things about himself, but we never learn what they are. Partly, this is because it’s difficult to write about finding something most people have never found. There’s no vocabulary for it. Even the character of Larry has trouble expressing what it is he’s looking for. The meaning of life? Why is he alive and what should he do? What’s his place in the world? Ultimately, what he really seems to be doing is being a part of life, working, meeting people from all walks of life, being a friend who listens, trying to help. He’s not a bum, he works, but he’s living in a way that allows him to be as open to people and experience as possible.

downloadIn some ways, it made me think of Lost Horizon. The novel of Lost Horizon was written eleven years before the novel The Razor’s Edge and the movies were only nine years apart. But in Lost Horizon, the main character is looking for a place of peace, as if the author knew a terrible war was coming and wants to avoid what is ahead. But Larry is looking for inner peace, since the war feared in Lost Horizon has already happened (at least it happened in real life; the story takes place before WWII) and now he needs to live in the world. One weakness of the film, however, is the middle, with the hollywoodized portrayal of Eastern philosophy and religion which come out sounding so vague it’s hardly recognizable as any particular religion. Still, I admire the film’s ambition.

It’s difficult to portray goodness (Maugham makes a comment about Larry having found genuine “goodness”). It’s something people instinctively recognized, but have difficulty expressing. We’re much better at portraying more negative emotions. And The Razor’s Edge doesn’t entirely succeed in showing what an alternate mode of living would be like. Partly, this is because Larry has means (he seems to have a mysterious income, small though it is, that allows him to live a lifestyle of searching) which are not available to most people. He also stays single. In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Pierre somewhat loses his contented state when he marries Natasha. Other concerns tend to crop up when one has obligations to other people. The vagueness also hurts. What has Larry found? But Power brings sincerity to his role and there is something sympathetic about his essentially humble search that allows him to non-judgmentally empathize with other people.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2016 in Movies

 

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The Fly (1958)

220px-TheflyposterAt the end of The Fly, I hardly knew whether to giggle or shudder. I tried a little of both. It’s that kind of movie. The concept is both chilling and silly.

The movie opens with a woman, Helene Delambre (Patricia Owens), in a warehouse who has just crushed a man’s head in a hydraulic press. She calls her brother-in-law, Francois Delambre (Vincent Price) and tells him she’s killed her husband, Andre (David Hedrison). Francois then calls the police. Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) thinks she must be insane. She’s obsessed with locating a certain house fly, one with a white head. Francois can’t imagine that she could do such a thing – he’s also always loved her, though he cared deeply for his brother, too. Finally, he gets her to tell him the truth, which is shown in a flashback, but is so incredible that Inspector Charas does not initially believe her. Not, he says, until they can show him the fly with the white head.

Most people coming into this film already know the plot, a scientist invents a teleportation device and when he tests himself in the device, a house fly gets mixed up in his DNA and he emerges part fly, with parts of his human self on the fly. But The Fly is framed as a mystery and I like how they build suspense, not because I am in the dark, but because the characters are in the dark. Inside the mystery framing is a flashback about Helene and Andre, their happy home, his ambition and his mistake that leads to tragedy.

The film really wants to deal with the theme of scientific hubris, the Frankenstein syndrome. A scientist is meddling with things he ought not to meddle with. Andre is all for progress and invention, but his wife is afraid at how fast things are changing. But it has occurred to me that the real problem with these kinds of scientists is not what they are trying to do. It is that they do it alone. It makes them prone to all sorts of silly errors, like putting an abnormal brain in their creation or not checking to make sure there is nothing else in the teleportation device except oneself. Really, such silly mistakes could easily be avoided by working with others.

Andre’s also unbelievably impetuous and reckless. He’s having some difficulty with his transporter, so what does he do? He tests it on the cat! I had a hard time forgiving him for that one (Griffin, in the novel The Invisible Man, also tests invisibility on the cat: the real message here seems to be that animal cruelty is always avenged with scientific catastrophe). And then Andre recklessly tests the device on himself.

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David Hedrison is hiding his fly head under a blanket while his wife reacts to his fly arm – the film is actually in lush color

The plot, to be honest, doesn’t make the most amount of sense. Why does Andre decide to destroy all his research, as if it was the research itself that was the problem? And perhaps if he’d enlisted aid outside of his wife, more could have been done and he could have been saved. And why does he retain his mind when he’s lost his head and acquired a fly head? Perhaps I’m over-analyzing this. If you can accept the basic premise of the film, it’s rather compelling.

What makes it compelling is partially the setting. It’s a normal, domestic setting for such a freak accident. The real heart of the story is actually not Andre, but his wife, Helene. We see everything in the flashback from her perspective, the horror of finding a fly head on her beloved husband. Andre keeps his fly head covered for much of the time and we only see it when she does and we come to realize as she does that the fly DNA is gradually taking over his instincts. We sense her sense of futility at the impossibility of trying to find a fly (Andre needs the fly with the white head so that he can put himself and the fly through the disintegrator-integrator device in the hope that it will unscramble their respective DNA). Imagine trying to locate one household fly, which could be anywhere. And then she freely admits to killing her husband, but then acts insane in an effort to shield her son, Phillipe (Charles Herbert), from what happened. She’d rather Phillipe have a mother who’s mad than hung.

Vincent Price has the rather unusual role of Andre’s brother. Unlike his brilliant, scientific brother, he is the boring, understanding and steady type who has always loved Helene, but is not jealous of his brother and is also a caring uncle. It’s a more understated role for him, but he’s still good. I think his mere presence serves to lend more credibility to the plot than it could otherwise have.

Herbert Marshall, Charles Herbert, and Vincent Price

Herbert Marshall, Charles Herbert, and Vincent Price

The role of Inspector Charas is played by Herbert Marshall, another veteran actor who I’ve always had a weak spot for. One of my favorite movies as a child was The Secret Garden with Margaret O’Brien and he played Mr. Craven. As Inspector Charas, he gives a sympathetic, but no-nonsense, performance. He is trying to handle the matter delicately – since he believes Helene to be insane – but no matter how much Francois begs him, he must issue a warrant for her arrest. I think his general no-nonsense performance also lends credibility, especially to an ending that  could have been laughable farce.

Apparently, Price and Marshall did have trouble filming the final scene because they were laughing so hard, though you wouldn’t know from watching the film. I laughed when I first heard the voice, “help me!” in a squeaky tone. It is the fly, with a man’s head and arm (since Andre has the fly’s head and arm), trapped in a spider’s-web, with a spider bearing down and about to eat it. Somehow, Charas’ utter horror sells it, as he crushes both the spider and the fly with a rock. But now that he’s killed a fly with a man’s head, he feel just as morally culpable as Helene, who killed a man with a fly’s head. He and Francois instead manage to come up with a story about how Andre committed suicide and Helene is not arrested. It’s certainly a memorable ending, even if I still can’t decide whether to laugh or shudder.

 
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Posted by on November 2, 2015 in Movies

 

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