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Murder On the Orient Express (1974)

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-1974“It’s like Clue on a train,” is how my aunt described Murder On the Orient Express during a family birthday party this weekend. After the party, we watched it at her house. I had seen it before, quite a few years ago, and so had my aunt, but it was new for my cousin. He said he liked it, though he thought there were a lot of useless shots of the train riding through the scenery.th1J7428RX

Excessive train shots don’t bother me, though. I like watching trains move through scenery and it adds a sense of ambience to the murder mystery that is taking place within the train, while outside the train becomes stopped, blocked by a snow drift. Snow outside, murder within, makes for a cozy feeling.

The famed detective, Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) is returning from Turkey to London on board the Orient Express. Unusually for the time of year, the entire train is filled up with passengers – eccentric passengers from all classes and ages. There is the Princess Dragomiroff, a British Colonel, a governess, used car salesman, a middle-aged and middle class American who won’t stop talking, a missionary, a Hungarian ambassador and his wife, etc., and a malevolent and very wealthy man named Ratchett, who tries to hire Poirot to protect him from whoever is writing him anonymous death threats.

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Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot

Poirot refuses to take the case – he doesn’t take many cases anymore and he doesn’t like Mr. Ratchett – but that night Ratchett is murdered in his bed. The train is blocked by a snowdrift and the man who runs the train doesn’t want trouble when they get into Yugoslavia and he begs Poirot to investigate the murder so that they can simply present the solution to the authorities when the train gets unblocked. Poirot agrees and the investigation begins.

One, important aspect that comes out (this is a plot spoiler, though not an identity-of-the-murderer spoiler) is that the man Ratchett was involved, several years earlier, in the kidnapping and death of the daughter of Daisy Armstrong. The event (reminiscent of what happened to Charles Lindberg) was big news and the man responsible was never caught. After the child died, her mother went into premature labor and both she and the baby died. There was a servant wrongly suspected who committed suicide, and Daisy’s father also committed suicide after his wife and child died. Poirot remarks that Ratchett was responsible for five murders, essentially. And he is wondering who, on this train, was connected to the devastated Armstrong family. There might be more than one would suppose.

Murder On the Orient Express, published in 1934, is probably Agatha Christie’s most famous work, though I read somewhere that And Then There Were None is actually her best selling novel of all time. Christie is also one of the premier mystery writers of all time and her Hercule Poirot appeared in 33 of her novels, as well as many short stories. Unlike Conan Doyle – who is more about the process of Holmes’ detections than about trying to be tricky with his mysteries, Christie is truly one of the best writers at genuinely puzzling the reader. It’s like a game: “Who committed the murder? It was him No, wait…it’s was her.” No one is better than her at providing a dazzling display of suspects, backstories and motivations. My sister was commenting about how reading a Christie novel is to constantly be revising your understanding of what is going on; we are always finding out something new that is changing the complexion of the case.

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Poirot confronts the suspects

The main reason I wanted to see the movie again – apart from the fact that it is generally a well-done movie and I love mysteries and trains – was because it contains an astonishing array of stars, stars I was only dimly aware of when last I saw the movie and who I have now seen when they were much younger. There is Lauren Bacall  (I have now seen in her movies with Humphrey Bogart, like The Big Sleep), Ingrid Bergman (of course, Casablanca) and Wendy Hiller (Pygmalion and I Know Where I’m Going!), though Hiller made very few movies and stayed mostly on the stage. Bacall is the chatty, vulgar American, Bergman plays a Swedish missionary to Africa and Wendy Hiller is an imperious Russian princess. Bergman won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal.

Albert Finney is not my favorite Poirot. David Suchet will always be the best (though I didn’t care as much for his less faithful version of Murder On the Orient Express from 2010), but Finney is adequate, if a little hard to understand. He does not speak at all clearly. Agatha Christie managed to actually not dislike this adaptation of one of her books (she disliked many other, previous ones), but she found Finney’s mustache a little underwhelming. Poirot in the book is supposed to have a perfectly extraordinary one.

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Jacqueline Bisset and Lauren Bacall

The rest of the cast reads like a hall of fame line-up, if there were such a thing: Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud, Jacqueline Bisset, Martin Balsam, Richard Widmark, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Anthony Perkins, Michael York. They are all excellent in their roles. It truly is an ensemble cast, with everyone getting equal screen time as the suspects, though Bacall is slightly preeminent among them all in her role.

If you like mysteries, trains, classic movies, Agatha Christie, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, are looking for a rare Wendy Hiller in a movie sighting, etc….this is your movie. One of my favorite adaptations of one of Christie’s books.

 

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Ingrid Bergman, Wendy Hiller, Rachel Roberts, Vanessa Redgrave, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, Martin Balsam

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2014 in Detective Movies, Mystery

 

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The Many Manifestations of “Pygmalion”

Pygmalion_serialized_November_1914[1]

I seem to be obsessed with all things Pygmalion.

1913 “Pygmalion” (play) by George Bernard Shaw

1938 Pygmalion (film) with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller

“My Fair Lady (musical) 1956 Broadway Cast Recording with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison

“My Fair Lady” (musical) 1959 London Cast Recording, again with Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison (one can’t have too much Julie Andrews)

1964 My Fair Lady (film) with Audrey Hepburn (songs dubbed by Marni Nixon) and Rex Harrison

I never get enough of it.. Ironically, I came to it all backwards. I grew up watching the musical and listening to two of the soundtracks, but when I recently watched it again, I decided I wasn’t being serious enough, so I got a hold of the one soundtrack I hadn’t heard (1956 Original Cast Recording), ordered both the 1938 film and a Penguin Classics edition of the play and consumed them all in a wonderful orgy of Pygmalion-ness.

“Pygmalion” – by George Bernard Shaw

The play, by Shaw, is a modern retelling of the Pygmalion story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses: a long, Roman poem published around 8 AD. In Ovid’s telling, Pygmalion hates women, but creates a statue so beautiful that he falls in love with it. He asks the goddess, Aphrodite, to make the statue come alive and he then marries his creation.

But George Bernard Shaw turns the original tale around. In his version, the “statue” achieves independence from her creator and many critics consider the play to have distinct feminist undertones, as well as being an ironic anti-romance.

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw

The Pygmalion character is Professor Henry Higgins, an arrogant, narcissistic, though brilliant, phonetics teacher. The sculpture is Eliza Doolittle, a poor girl who sells flowers on the street and speaks with a Cockney accent. Higgins believes that all that is really separating the classes is their manner of speech and boasts that he could take anybody – in this case, Eliza – and teach her how to speak and act properly and then pass her off as a duchess.

Eliza wants to break out of the limitations imposed on her life – if she spoke better English she could work in a flower shop instead of on the streets – and tries to hire Higgins to teach her. However, Colonel Pickering, a friend of Higgins who is also interested in phonetics, wagers the cost of the lessons that Higgins can’t actually pass her off in society. Higgins takes the bet and months of grueling work ensue for all three of them. In the end, Eliza is triumphant, but is not acknowledged or given her due by Higgins, who feels that he did all the work and made her what she now is. A series god complex.

In Shaw’s play Eliza rebels and leaves, even when he asks her to stay, and Shaw was quite emphatic that she stayed gone. But from the very beginning, there was a tendency to read a romance into the play. The original actor who played Higgins would throw flowers after Eliza left the stage, to indicate that they would later marry. Shaw was so disgusted with the pervasiveness of this belief that he wrote an afterwards to his play, explaining in detail what happens to each of the characters and how Eliza could never possibly marry Higgins. He felt strongly that a romance would undermine the entire point of his play.

George Bernard Shaw was a socialist and was very proud that he was able to insert certain points into a play that could also be successful with the public. One theme was an exposure of the class system, partially maintained by a “verbal class distinction.” By teaching Eliza proper English and the rudiments of polite behavior, Higgins and Eliza completely fool society. She is even taken to be a Hungarian princess and Higgins comments that these “silly people don’t know their own silly business.” The class barrier is demonstrated to be both superficial and oppressive (in how it excludes people and prevents them from moving up – like how Eliza couldn’t work in a flower shop because of her accent). But though they expose the class system, it’s still there. Through Higgins’ heedless “promotion” of Eliza from the gutter, she now belongs to no class.

Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller

Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller

Nicholas Grene, in his introduction to the Penguin Classics’ “Pygmalion,” also talks about individualism as another theme in the book. Eliza is uniquely herself; that is why she can’t return to Higgins; she is not his creation or, as Mrs. Higgins calls her, his “live doll.” She always was a little different from others, which is why she wanted Higgins to teach her in the first place. And when she declares her independence, it is not as if she suddenly found her courage, since she always was inclined to stand up for herself. Higgins is likewise an individual, almost to an extreme, who cares not at all for other people and their opinions. Grene says, these people never were just ordinary people, they exist outside of any class system.

Pygmalion – 1938 Film

Gabriel Pascal, a producer and director, somehow talked Shaw into letting him make a film version of his play, with Shaw as screenwriter. However, Pascal insisted on casting Leslie Howard, because he thought he was a more romantic figure. Pascal also managed to get another ending. Eliza leaves, as in the play, but Higgins then realizes how much she has become a part of his life. As he sits, listening to a recording of her voice, she enters the room. He sits up with hope, then leans back and pushes his hat over his eyes and says the lines, “Where the devil are my slippers?”

It works as an ending, despite being against Shaw’s wishes (and Shaw did still like the movie; he approved all the other changes). For one, Leslie Howard really is a more romantic figure in the movie. In the play, Higgins is very attached to his mother and declares no one else measures up. He’s brilliant, but he’s also not quite mature or grown up and truly seems not to have the ability to understand that people have feelings. Leslie Howard does not project this lack of maturity in the same way and is more believable as a possible lover.

The Look

The Look

Also, Wendy Hiller (who played Eliza on stage at one point) definitely sells it at the end when she realizes exactly why she need no longer be in awe of Higgins or crave his approval. There is a new look in her eye when she tells him she doesn’t have to put up with his treatment of her, so even when she comes back, there is still that look in her eyes and you know things will never be the same between them. One imagines a tempestuous romance ensues.

My Fair Lady – 1964 Film

That is what’s missing in the film version of the musical. I used to think that the ending of the musical was the problem, but after seeing Pygmalion, I realized that it has more to do with the casting of Audrey Hepburn as Eliza, since the ending of the musical is exactly the same as in the movie.

I like Audrey Hepburn a lot as an actress, but she’s too fragile, ethereal, elegant, somehow, to quite pull it off opposite Rex Harrison. I don’t quite believe her when she sings “I can do without you” (actually, Marni Nixon sings it, Audrey Hepburn acts it). As a result, when she comes back at the end, it looks like a defeat on her part rather than a victory. With Wendy Hiller, it was definitely her victory.

And although I will never be able to see it, I bet Julie Andrews made it a victory, too. When I think of the roles she played (Mary Poppins, Maria Van Trapp, not shrinking violets) I could see how she could hold her own against Rex Harrison and, by all accounts, she was dazzling in the role. I shall probably never cease to regret not being able to see her as Eliza Doolittle, and no matter how much I enjoy My Fair Lady, there’s always that little regret in the back of my mind that keeps me from absolutely loving the movie.

MusicalTheater3[1]But I absolutely love the music. It has been considered one of the greatest musicals ever – the perfect blend of music, lyrics, book – written by Alan Jay Lerner (books and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music). It was a wildly successful musical and when it went to London, it was ecstatically received there, too. And the music so well matched the lyrics, many taken from the play and movie, that when I read the play or even watch Leslie Howard deliver his lines, I half expect him to start talking/singing There is so much irrepressible joy in the music – Shaw wrote an anti-romance, but “My Fair Lady” is all romance.

Irony is often misinterpreted, so perhaps Shaw’s ironic anti-romance was always going to be misinterpreted; and there is just something about the story, an irony of a fairy tale, that captures the imagination. The play overflows with sparkle and life, one area that the musical is brilliant in expressing; and in that way I do maintain that “My Fair Lady” is not a betrayal of Shaw. Lerner and Loewe capture many of his themes – class, individualism, etc. – and it was the musical that made me want to read the play. Both the musical and movie, I feel, bring out something slightly different and will always point back to Shaw. It’s like Pride and Prejudice – it’s been imitated, expanded on, adapted numerous times, changed, reinterpreted, and yet we always come back to the original work by Jane Austen. It’s the sign of true timelessness.

Notes

Here is an interesting article on TCM about the 1938 film Pygmalion, that discusses more about the making of the film and Shaw’s reaction to it.

The closet I’ve ever come to seeing Julie Andrews as Eliza Doolittle: her 1961 performance of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” on the Ed Sullivan Show.

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2014 in Books, Movies

 

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I Know Where I’m Going!

thNVF8TBYF1945 – Directed by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell – Written by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell – Starring Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey

I recently watched a very sweet British film that was made when people knew that WWII was going to come to a favorable end. I Know Where I’m Going! was produced, directed, and written by Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell (their production company was called The Archers and they made 19 films together). It was filmed while they were waiting for Technicolor cameras to be available so they could film a different movie. Now that the war was coming to an end, they wanted to remind their audience of the things that really mattered and were worried about excess commercialism.

The result was a lovely film about unexpected love and individualism. It takes place in the Hebrides, islands off the west coast of Scotland, where myth and history is still close to the people who live there – they wear their kilts, dance their reels, play bagpipes, know their own folklore and history, sing their songs, are very connected to their home, and do it all with wonderful good humor.

The movie opens with a brief montage about Joan Webster, growing up – who knew exactly where she was going and how she was going to get there. Once a young woman, she announces to her father that she is going to marry Sir Robert Bellinger, who is the head of Consolidated Chemical Industries. Her father protests that she can’t marry a corporation and she says that she can. They plan to wed on a small island in the Hebrides called Kiloran. She travels the long way from London, taking a train, ferry, and taxi, only to get stranded by bad weather, just a short boat trip across from Kiloran, where her fiancé is waiting.

9178bf99a5bb5bb86e98a7e46a5afcd2[1]Also waiting to cross to Kiloran is Torquil MacNeil, who is on leave from the Navy. He is very friendly, and likes her a lot, but she has no intention of letting anything keep her from getting to her destination. When the bad weather continues, however, she spends more time with Torquil and he begins to gently, but definitely, try to win her. And although she knows she is falling in love with him, she is also determined to stick with her original plan and becomes desperate enough to avoid him that she attempts the crossing in the spite of the danger.

One thing that really makes this a gentle story is what a thoroughly nice guy Torquil is. He has no hang-ups about anything, is never critical of her (except when she puts herself and someone else in danger) or her rich fiancé. He is a kind man and when he makes a comment about how she is always the lady, she says she can’t change herself and he replies that he likes her as she is.

JE-SAIS-OU-JE-VAIS-I-KNOW-WHERE-I-M-GOING-1945_portrait_w858[1]In a humorous aside on how identified he is with his corporation, we never actually meet the fiancé (though we hear his voice), so there are no overt caricatures of the pompous rich business man to distract. The real obstacle in the movie is Joan’s own willfulness. Torquil’s friend, Catriona, is just managing to keep her home running (much of her food was eaten when the British army stayed there for several years) and goes out to shoot rabbits for dinner. She does not dismiss that money would be useful to have, but tells Joan she keeps on because there are certain things more important.

According to Paul Byrne, in his excellent article that explores the movie, on Sense of Cinema, Michael Powell, who did the bulk of the writing, loved Scotland and it is obvious in the movie and is one of it’s main charms. Much of the filming is done in Scotland, with the rest being filmed in a London studio.

TCM also features a wonderful article about the making of the film. It talks about how James Mason turned down the role and how Roger Livesey was doing a play in London and was unable to do any filming in Scotland, so all his scenes were actually shot in London, though I never noticed when I was watching.

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2014 in Movies

 

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