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The October Man (1947)

It’s perhaps a bit late for October, but The October Man is worth seeing in any month. Like many films made in the post-WWII American and British film industry, it is a (British) psychological mystery/thriller, and stars John Mills, Joan Greenwood, and Kay Walsh. What makes it fascinating is not the mystery, though, but the exploration of how a character who is labeled “crazy” becomes the prime suspect in a murder case.

John Mills plays Jim Ackland, who, at the beginning of the film, is in a devastating bus crash that costs the life of the young daughter of family friends. He sustains a head injury and suffers from suicidal depression, blaming himself for the young girl’s death. He spends time in a hospital/sanitarium, but when he is released now must suffer, not only the after-effects of his injury, but also the stigma of having spent time in a sanitarium.

He gets a good job as a chemist and even begins dating the sister of one of his co-workers, Jenny Carden (Joan Greenwood), but there is trouble at his cheap hotel. When his neighbor, Molly Newman (Kay Walsh), who he knows slightly, is murdered, he becomes the prime suspect, not only for everyone in the hotel, but also for the police. Everyone immediately jumps to the conclusion that because he’s a “loony,” he must have been the one to kill her, despite the fact that his mental condition is described by the doctor as acute depression and that the only person he’s ever tried to harm is himself.

Initially, Jim emphatically denies having killed her, but soon he begins to wonder. Did he kill her after all? There is a moment of time when he was walking, lost in thought, and could he have had a blackout? The police believe so and interrogate him repeatedly and so persuasively that they actually begin to bring Jim around to their way of thinking.

It becomes fairly obvious, though, who killed Molly and the viewer is rarely in doubt that Jim is innocent. What is interesting is how all mental illness is lumped under one term – “crazy” – and therefore grounds for suspicion, despite a lack of substantial evidence.

John Mills, Joan Greenwood, and random character

In fact, the police seem to understand that they lack sufficient grounds for conviction and their tactics look less like investigation than an attempt to break Jim until he confesses, so certain are they that he is the guilty party. The situation is compounded by one overt lie from the real murderer and speculative gossip from the rest of the hotel’s guests. Jim is forced to wade through the wary guests to discover what they have been saying about him.

Jim is essentially set up, not so much by the murderer, but by the police. My sister was telling me of a book she was reading, which discusses how interrogators have to be careful – if they want the truth – because if they work on a person long enough (even an innocent person) that person’s story will gradually start to sound like what they want to hear. This is especially true for Jim, who is already emotionally fragile.

I have always admired John Mills as an actor and he is up to his usual excellent standards in The October Man. Always sympathetic and retaining his dignity, he definitely ready to break apart at any moment. He doubts himself and is tempted to escape, either by killing himself or returning to the sanitarium. The only thing holding him back is his fiance, Jenny Carden, and his wavering conviction that he did not kill Molly.

Joan Greenwood was hilariously wicked and seductive in Kind Hearts and Coronets and Kay Walsh remarkably sympathetic as Nancy in David Lean’s Oliver Twist. Their characters, however, are not fleshed out much in The October Man. Kay Walsh has the more interesting role, friendly and open-hearted, but also involved with a married man and pursued by another, mysterious admirer, and one actually regrets that we do not get to know her more, which makes her more than a convenient corpse.

If one is expecting a puzzling mystery, the film can be disappointing. However, if you think of it as an exploration of how the perception of mental illness can affect a person and expectations of that person, it becomes far more engaging.

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Posted by on December 6, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Lodger (1927)

Ever since reading FictonFan’s and Silverscreening’s reviews of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, I have been doubly curious to see the film, which is also my contribution to Coffee, Classics, & Craziness’ “The Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon 2017.” It was the third film that Alfred Hitchcock directed, but is the one that he considered essentially his first film, the first to be recognizably Hitchcockian.

The Lodger is one of many film and stage adaptations of the novel by Marie Belloc Loundes, published in 1911 and inspired by the Jack the Ripper murders in 1888. Hitchcock’s film, however, appears to be set in 1927, though there is a definite gaslight and Gothic ethos. Ivor Novello, who plays the mysterious lodger, would have made a fantastic Dracula, actually.

The film opens with a silent scream.

Neil Brand, who wrote the contemporary score for the version I saw, has the orchestra scream along with the image. The scream reminded me of Hitchcock’s later close-up image of Janet Leigh screaming in the shower in Psycho. The beginning of The Lodger is really excellent and demonstrates Hitchcock’s visual skill, which requires minimal inter titles to explain the action. A blonde girl (Hitchcock already demonstrating his preference for blonds) has been murdered. There is one witness, who says she saw a tall man with a scarf wrapped around the lower half of his face. We see the police, the curious spectators, the ghoulish interest, the press, everything in a rapid fire of images (including a brief glimpse of Hitchcock). We also see a sign for a show called “Golden Curls.” The image of the sign will show up mockingly throughout the film.

The story then shifts to Mrs. Bunting (Marie Ault), her husband (Arthur Chesney), their daughter Daisy (June Tripp…who has golden curls), and the boyfriend/policeman Joe (Malcolm Keen). Joe and Daisy flirt with a heart-shaped cookie cutter and some dough, once again demonstrating Hitchcock’s flair for visual storytelling. Into this tranquil and domestic scene comes…the Lodger! Who looks like Dracula, or at the very least his cousin.

played by Ivor Novello

Would you let this man rent a room in your house?

The lodger is definitely a strange young man, who doesn’t like pictures of women with golden curls in his room and has a habit of looking tormented by some inner turmoil. Not to mention pacing restlessly in his room, which is shown with a glass floor that shows him walking while the Buntings look up at the ceiling, the visuals of his footsteps almost making us “hear” the sound of his footsteps that the Buntings actually hear. When the lodger’s not looking creepy, he looks like Lord Byron, all sensitivity and anguish.

Hurting him would be like hurting a puppy

The tension in the film comes from Mrs. Bunting and her husband beginning to suspect that their lodger is the mysterious killer after he sneaked out at night and was gone during the time when another golden-curled woman was murdered. Their anxiety is heightened when he shows a strong interest in Daisy, who does not see anything wrong in the lodger’s behavior. Joe, on the other hand, grows increasingly jealous.

It’s quite an exciting, atmospheric film and really shows Hitchcock’s ability to create tension visually rather than via words, as well as hitting on a number of themes that he would explore later. And if you have never seen it, I would definitely recommend watching it before reading the spoilers section below.

(Spoilers) I have to admit that I knew the surprise ending before coming into the film, that the lodger is actually, incontrovertibly innocent (unlike Laird Cregar’s lodger in the 1944 film), but I was curious how it would play out. The lodger’s innocence had a rather odd affect, I thought, somewhat like the affect of Hitchcock’s later Suspicion, though far less egregious. It makes Ivor Novello’s performance both sinister and romantic, which makes him a creepy lover. At one moment, he is stalking Daisy to her job as a model and buying her the dress she was modeling (it’s obvious that he’s a well-off young man, socially far above Daisy) and another moment gazing soulfully into her eyes like a young man with bad case of puppy love. In fact, the second part of the film feels more like a romance than a mystery or thriller.

I also have to admit that my view of the characters is somewhat colored by the fact that about two-thirds of the way through the movie, my sister labeled the two romantic leads as “pretty ninnies.” This is partly because the plot is not consistent. If he’s innocent, why didn’t he go to the police? Why did he run? Why is she standing by him, even though she knows nothing about it. They do not behave rationally. But they certainly look pretty while their doing it…especially Novello.

still looking mysterious

It is interesting to note that never again would Hitchcock have a woman place such unreasoning faith in a man for no reason. In The 39 Steps, Madeleine Carroll initially tries to turn Robert Donat in, Eva Marie Saint “helps” Cary Grant because she’s really working for the villain, Grace Kelly is simply turned on by the fact that she believes Cary Grant is a criminal in To Catch a Thief, and in Sabateur Priscilla Lane also initially tries to turn Robert Cummings in.

Regarding the ending, however, I’ve noticed that there is a theory floating around on the internet about another possible interpretation of the end of the film, which jives with my own impressions. Perhaps he really is the killer after all! Hitchcock originally meant to have the ending be ambiguous, but when Ivor Novello was cast, he was forced to change the script so that the leading man (rather like Cary Grant in Suspicion) would be innocent. But quite a few questions go unanswered. Like who killed the lodger’s sister and why? His sister was the first victim, but she died in the middle of a ballroom when the lights are turned off. Whoever killed her had to be someone in upper class society. But her murder doesn’t fit with all the other murders that come after, which seem to be happening in the street. Which makes one wonder if the lodger really killed his sister and went on a mad spree afterwards, until he saw Daisy, who perhaps reminded him of his sister.

It’s just a theory, but it seems odd that Hitchcock would make the lodger’s mansion look so creepy and Gothic. I half expected him to greet Daisy and her parents by saying, “I am…Dracula.” And then when they embrace, we can see the sign “To Night – Golden Curls” blinking in the background. Is it meant to be portentous of what is to come? Evidently, Neil Brand, the composer, thought so because as the lodger and Daisy embrace, the music grows gradually more ominous. Hmm.

His victims, waiting for Dracula to appear

Dracula welcomes his victims

Why is the sign “To Night Golden Curls” blinking in the background? Is that meant to be ironic or prophetic?

This post is my contribution to “The Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon 2017.” Be sure to check out the other posts, which can be found here.

 

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Man With a Cloak (1951)

themanwithacloakIt’s difficult to know exactly what to call The Man in a Cloak. It’s not a mystery, it’s not a Gothic thriller, or a romance or a drama. It’s sort of a gaslight crime drama…except no crimes are ever actually committed…just skirted around. In fact, not much of anything happens.

Madeline Minot (Leslie Caron) arrives in New York from Paris in 1848 (a year of multiple revolutions throughout France, the Italian peninsula, the Hapsburg Empire and Prussia ). She is the fiance of a French revolutionary who is estranged from his Bonepartist grandfather, Charles Thevenet (Louis Calhern). She has come to ask that Thevenet leave his vast fortune to his grandson, who is in dire need of the money for his cause.

But Thevenet is not sympathetic to his grandson’s cause, though he is a sucker for a pretty face. But he also seems to owe his servants. It’s a peculiar arrangement. Lorna Bounty (Barbara Stanwyck) is an ex-mistress, sort of housekeeper, companion, and she has been living with him for ten years, along with the butler, Martin (Joe De Santis), who looks more like an ex-thug, and the cook, Mrs. Flynn (Margaret Wycherly). They are all waiting for Thevenet to die and do not welcome the intrusion of a pretty face to steal their fortune.

In the meantime, Madeline receives unexpected help from a mysterious stranger/poet (Joseph Cotten) who calls himself “Dupin” and spends most of his time getting drunk.

It’s an interesting premise, but somehow the film never quite jells or goes anywhere dramatically. We don’t even get a proper murder. There’s a lot of talk about danger and evil, but nothing very dreadful occurs. Mostly, it is a struggle with Lorna and the servants against Madeline and Dupin, each trying to ensure that Thevenet leaves their side the money.

I think the The Man in the Cloak is more interesting for the story it doesn’t tell than the story it does. Who are these three people, living together in the house for ten years, obviously from very different backgrounds, who don’t even like each other? Lorna was Thevenet’s mistress, once a star, but clearly seems to believe that he owes her for all he took from her. We don’t know how Martin and Mrs. Flynn came to work for him, but one cannot help but think there is a story there, too.

Lorna basically runs the house and I have to admit that it tickled my funny bone at the thought of a house full of evil domestics. Martin clearly hates Lorna, but can’t help desiring her at the same time. Lorna barely tolerates him, often mocks him and can’t stand the way he slurps his tea. Mrs. Flynn is always laughing at both of them. They are only united in their hatred for Thevenet and desire for his money.

On the other hand, Madeline feels sorry for Thevenet, but it feels misplaced, because Thevenet clearly committed many dark deeds in pursuit of his fortune. To be honest, it was hard for me even to cheer for Madeline to win the money. Perhaps I’m simply biased in Barbara Stanwyck’s favor, but Madeline’s fiance really had no more right to the money than anyone else.

cloak

Leslie Caron, Louis Calhern, Barbara Stanwyck, Joseph Cotten

There are also some interesting parallels drawn that are never fully explored, especially between Dupin and Thevenet. Both men are drinking themselves ill, both men are suckers for Madeline’s pretty innocence, both are conscious of being rather disreputable, and both have people after them for their money. Except that Dupin has no money and Thevenet has too much. But both owe something which they do not repay.

Ultimately, Dupin’s character doesn’t seem quite dark enough. The film isn’t dark enough. Even Lorna seems rather cool about losing everything in the end. One can’t help but wonder what it all adds up to. Though perhaps that’s the point. The irony is that the money the Bonepartist Thevenet sentimentally leaves to his revolutionary grandson will help form the Second Republic that is taken over by Napoleon III in 1851.

The cast, however, is excellent, which makes one wish the film had been better. It is a great idea that is never developed. Leslie Caron seems somewhat overshadowed, but that’s not her fault so much as the plot’s. Barbara Stanwyck is the real force in the film…along with Louis Calhern. It’s unique…worth a look if you are into gaslight dramas or are a fan of Barbara Stanwyck.

 
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Posted by on November 1, 2016 in Movies

 

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