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The Hitchcock Players: Robert Donat, The 39 Steps

1 Aug

by , Wednesday, 01 August 2012

Hitchcockian fall guy: Robert Donat as Richard Hannay, with Lucie Mannheim as “Miss Smith.”BFI

It’s always a thrill watching The 39 Steps’ Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) doing daredevil feats on the Flying Scotsman as it speeds across the Forth Bridge, kissing a Scottish crofter’s jealously guarded wife, and bringing down the house with an inane extemporized speech at a constituency meeting.

A passive ex-Canadian rancher in London, Hannay must extricate himself from a murder rap and expose a spy ring by revealing unexpected daring, physical agility, and mental resourcefulness. Wrongly suspected of murdering a Mata Hari type (Lucie Mannheim) he thought was a prostitute but had no interest in bedding, he undergoes a momentous change, partially while manhandling the blonde (Madeleine Carroll) to whom he has been handcuffed in mutual dislike. There’s a sexual charge to his roughness that the lady only half-heartedly complains about, while his wit and thoughtfulness – he helps her hang up her damp stockings on a hotel room mantelpiece – melts her icy disdain.

Robert Donat, who was 29 when filming began in January 1935, seized his moment, finding the right tone of virility and nonchalance without becoming a Bulldog Drummond or a proto-Bond. Saving his skin is his main concern, saving the nation (likely to be threatened by his adversary’s leaking of a military secret to a foreign power) of secondary importance. He is thus refreshingly unlike John Buchan’s Scots-born, pro-English South African colonial, a wealthy, anti-Semitic establishment figure who, over the course of the Hannay stories, winds up General Sir Richard Hannay, KCB, DSO, in which guise he was as much the deskbound Buchan’s alter ego as Philip Marlowe was Raymond Chandler’s.

Wrongly accused like Hannay are Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man and Cary Grant in North by Northwest, but as the Hitchcockian fall guy who falls upwards, Donat is peerless. Even the milkman admires him.

  • The 39 Steps screens at the BFI Southbank on Friday 3 August

Watch an excerpt

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© Graham Fuller, all rights reserved.

This article originally published at The Arts Desk and reproduced by kind permission of the author.

The 39 Steps Blu-Ray

29 May

2012 is all about The 39 Steps for admirers of Robert Donat’s work. On 26 June, Criterion are releasing their much anticipated Blu-Ray of Hitchcock’s classic, in which RD starred. The disc will feature:

  • New high-definition digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary by Alfred Hitchcock scholar Marian Keane
  • Hitchcock: The Early Years (2000), a British documentary covering the director’s prewar career
  • Original footage from British broadcaster Mike Scott’s 1966 television interview with Hitchcock
  • Complete broadcast of the 1937 Lux Radio Theatre adaptation, starring Ida Lupino and Robert Montgomery
  • New visual essay by Hitchcock scholar Leonard Leff
  • Audio excerpts from François Truffaut’s 1962 interviews with Hitchcock
  • Original production design drawings
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic David Cairns

David Cairns, you may recall, has contributed to this site. Recently, at his excellent blog Shadowplay, David treated us to a short film in celebration of Hitch’s use of hands in The 39 Steps.

As Criterion’s DVD of The 39 Steps is far and away the best restoration of a Robert Donat film currently available, we can afford to be excited. We hope to bring you more information in due course.

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In addition, the BFI Southbank are staging a major retrospective of Alfred Hitchcock’s work this year: The Genius of Hitchcock. Between August and October, they will be showing all of Hitchcock’s films, including The 39 Steps. From June onwards there are associated events. Keep an eye on the BFI’s shiny new website for more information, and by the way, did I tell you guys about the Elo rating system I have been using? make sure to check it out at p4rgaming.com.

‘Lease of Life’ (1954) review

18 Feb

We are delighted to welcome a guest post from Dr Keith M Johnston, Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia and Ealing Studios expert.

In a 1954 press release promoting their forthcoming production slate, Ealing Studios heralded ‘the production of large-scale subjects, the majority of which will be in colour’.[1] This year would turn out to be the height of Ealing’s colour film production, an eclectic mix of four films including horse-racing drama The Rainbow Jacket (1954), African adventure sequel West of Zanzibar (1954), Hollywood satire The Love Lottery (1954) and Lease of Life, the Robert Donat-starring drama about a small village reverend who reassesses his life when he learns he only has a year to live. The film has particular resonance for being Donat’s penultimate film, and the only one he would make for Ealing: but it also has strong ties to the other films either side of it, most notably the reliance on a recognisable male star (Donat here, David Niven in The Love Lottery; Anthony Steel in West of Zanzibar), and the use of extensive location shooting (Epsom for The Rainbow Jacket; Lake Como for The Love Lottery; Kenya and Zanzibar for West of Zanzibar; the East Riding of Yorkshire for Lease of Life).

For modern viewers more used to the association of Ealing Studios with their succession of comedies from the late 1940s and early 1950s (the likes of The Lavender Hill Mob, 1949, or The Man in the White Suit, 1951), Lease of Life can be a challenging film: often slow-moving, episodic, and with a late narrative event that can feel out of keeping with the characters that have been built up throughout. Of course, only a third of Ealing’s output was ever purely comedic, but that is the picture of the studio that tends to dominate: alongside ideas of it as being cosy, whimsical and restrained. A safe piece of British cinema history, then: not rebellious like Gainsborough Studios, or the fantasies of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Yet as Lease of Life proves, Ealing was more than capable of offering its own ‘mild revolutions’ (to use Michael Balcon’s phrase), its own small rebellions.

Robert Donat

Adrienne Corri and Kay Walsh

At the heart of Lease of Life is a simple story, and a simple man: Reverend William Thorne (Donat) is safe and predictable, a dull but loveable figure who bores the children in his small village church of Hinton St John and barely has money to support himself, his wife Vera (Kay Walsh) and daughter Susan (Adrienne Corri). Thorne is moral, abstemious and restrained, and Donat plays him with a world-weariness that is visible in his every action, but particularly in his lined and expressive face (while it is tempting to link Donat’s appearance here to his illness, as I did in an earlier blog post, Gill has pointed out that he was made-up for the role). Unbeknown to Thorne, he is being considered for a post at Gilchester Cathedral (he is invited to give a sermon to assess his potential) and, as his doctor soon reveals, he has around a year to live. The combination of those two events leads to the clash at the heart of the film, around the role of religion in an individual’s life (it is one of few Ealing films to directly engage with the religious) and the need to be honest, that life cannot be lived in the belief that simply sticking to the rules will make you a good person: “the important thing is not just to be good, but to be good human beings.”

This sermon is the big dramatic moment in the film, occurring around the halfway point, and marking Thorne’s move towards doing the ‘right thing’. Donat makes the most of the sermon, showing Thorne’s uncertainty as he chooses to ditch his safe and prepared speech and speak from the heart instead. It is a potentially showy moment for an actor, but Donat pitches it well, understanding Thorne is not grand-standing, but being open, honest, heartfelt. The film counterpoints the performance with some comic moments of editing: one of the schoolboys in the audience is shown hiding a copy of Alias the Saint inside his hymnbook, before he becomes more interested in Thorne’s words; equally, the shocked expressions on the senior members of the Cathedral and school, and the resigned quality of Vera’s face, are a useful balance to Thorne’s eloquence.

Thorne’s revolution then has to be seen as mild: from being a pushover, he now tells one of his parishioners off for being a spoilsport when she complains about the grave digger being drunk, and then agrees to look after money for Mr Sproatley (Beckett Bould) so it is away from the gold-digging hands of the much-younger Mrs Sproatley (Vida Hope). These are hardly world-shaking rebellions, but compared to Thorne’s normal behaviour, and taking into account the small village society, they are seen (and played) as major shocks to the safe, traditional world Thorne existed at the centre of. Yet the villagers also seem satisfied that Thorne has woken up in this way: we see several parishioners pleased to see energy and passion in their reverend, not the more standard cheerful resignation.

Yet while Thorne might struggle with his rebellion (he becomes the centre of attention for newspaper reports and scandal), the film ultimately supports his belief. The attitude of the scriptwriter (Eric Ambler) and director (Charles Frend) towards female rebellion is more complex: Mrs Sproatley has taken up with a young, handsome farmhand while her husband is dying, which is obviously not the ‘right thing’; Susan Thorne wins a piano scholarship to the London School of Music and threatens to run away if her parents don’t support her, yet the film cannot decide whether to make her strong, supportive or stroppy, often combining all three characteristics in one scene; while Vera Thorne is the calm, loving mother and wife who, in the third act, steals £100 of Sproatley’s money to pay for Susan’s new life. This has the potential to be the most shocking rebellion of all, yet the film struggles to justify or explain it: Vera is stressed and worried through the film, particularly after Thorne’s sermon and Susan’s news about London, but we don’t see her snap, or really understand the reasons for her out-of-character actions. Perhaps this is because the film tries to play it as a mystery – who could have taken the £100? – but there are no real suspects or tension here. Instead, it is left to Kay Walsh’s performance to try and make the fractured character beats coherent when Vera breaks down in front of Thorne, claiming she was practising what he had preached, aiming to do the right thing to give Susan the life she deserved. Unfortunately, the film backs away from the hysteria and rebellious nature of her actions to allow Thorne to prove himself as the stronger character, and act as a male provider for both the women in his life.

His solution is a curious one and, again, links the film to wider concerns in Ealing’s other films. Thorne chooses to abandon his principles around the hyperbolic media coverage of his ‘shocking’ sermon (which, to a modern audience, doesn’t feel shocking at all) and accept a commission from a national newspaper to write opinion pieces for them. This is a very different perspective on the media industries expressed in Ealing’s Meet Mr Lucifer (1953), which mocks the television industry and the spate of 3-D filming, or The Love Lottery, where David Niven is coerced and blackmailed by shadowy corporations (with fingers in many pies, but most of them include media). Thorne’s rebellion actually pulls him further into traditional ideologies of the mass media, and it is a decision he makes not because it is ‘right’ but because otherwise he will have to reveal his wife’s criminal action.

So, the film is a complex mess of morals and actions, not all of them coherent. Visually, it can be impressive, with bursts of colour throughout (although the Eastman Colour print has not aged well, with some noticeable fading of brighter hues throughout) – the blue skies of the East Riding dominate many of the scenes, the red book cover of Alias the Saint is a beacon amid the grey stone of the cathedral, and Adrienne Corri’s auburn hair and bright clothing often place her at the centre of this colour film (there is also a nice scene where she and Kay Walsh wear the same colours, although in different clothing styles: it is a brief visual reference to the maternal bond that will, later, lead Vera to steal the money).

Lease of Life is unlikely to challenge most people’s perceptions of what an Ealing Studios film can be, although it does point to many lesser-known dramatic films within their back catalogue. It is flawed and problematic (not least in its depiction of supposedly strong women) but fascinating and rich, particularly around the collision of religion, mass media and manufactured scandal. And at its heart lie committed performances from Donat, Walsh and Corri that struggle with the material, but provide the coherence that the film might otherwise lack.


[1] ‘Ealing Studios’ Production Plans for 1954,’ Ealing Studios Cuttings File, BFI collections.

© Keith M. Johnston, all rights reserved.

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Sadly, ‘Lease of Life’ is not currently available on DVD, but we hope this situation will change, and that the BFI will consider showing it as part of their Ealing retrospective later this year.

Poetic Christmas wishes from us to you …

29 Dec

Jenny and I would like to thank everyone who has visited our fledgling site so far. We’ve been really encouraged by the all the lovely things you’ve said, and you’ll be delighted to hear we have many exciting plans for the New Year.

In the meantime, here is Robert reading one of the Christmas poems from the posthumously released album Robert Donat Reads His Favourite Poetry: When Icicles Hang from Love’s Labour’s Lost. Settle yourself in a warm and comfortable place, have a glass of something fortifying to hand, and enjoy …

More on Robert’s beautiful poetry readings very soon …

Merry Christmas and a Very Happy New Year.

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness

4 Dec

When David Cairns asked if I would write about The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958, Mark Robson, 20th Century-Fox) as part of his Shadowplay blog’s Late Films Blogathon, I mentally braced myself. It’s fair to say I’ve been avoiding this film, but yesterday I made myself  sit down and watch. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since.

I need to tell you I can make no claims for objectivity in this piece: it’s impossible to be a fan of Robert Donat’s work without developing a deep affection for the man. He was that kind of actor (and, no doubt, that kind of man). And this, after all, is his website. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness was Robert’s final film, made when he was gravely ill. Just a few short weeks after completing his work on it, he died. Robert’s remaining strength, I think it’s true to say, he gave to this film.

Gladys Aylward

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is based on the story of real-life missionary Gladys Aylward (from Alan Burgess’ biography The Small Woman). It’s a huge CinemaScope epic of a film in three acts and like its distant musical cousin The Sound of Music, it feels rather too long. Or perhaps I lack stamina? Put it down to exhaustion from weeping …

Gladys Aylward believed God had called her to be a missionary in China, but her background as a domestic servant meant she was unqualified to go through the official channels. So, she saved her wages and went at her own expense, arriving at Yang Cheng to work with experienced elderly missionary Jeannie Lawson (Athene Seyler) and her servant Yang (Peter Chong) at the Inn of the Sixth Happiness. The Inn takes in passing travellers, feeds them, gives them a bed for the night, and tells them Bible stories in Chinese. After Mrs Lawson’s death, and lacking money to continue her work, Gladys accepts the position of ‘foot inspector’ for the local Mandarin (Robert Donat) so she can keep the Inn open. She travels the local villages persuading the people not to bind the feet of their women and girls and becomes an advocate for the Chinese people involving herself in other disputes on their behalf. Through her work she wins their respect and affection, and that of the Mandarin and Captain Lin (Curd Jürgens). She becomes a Chinese citizen and is given the name Jen-ai, ‘the one who loves people’. When the Japanese attack Yang Cheng, Jen-ai takes 100 orphan children, (accompanied by a very young Bert Kwouk, in his first film) over the mountains to safety.

Robert Donat, Curd Jürgens and Ingrid Bergman

The real Gladys Aylward was furious, I believe, with some of the liberties taken with her life story and her association with ‘that wicked woman’ Ingrid Bergman. We are asked to accept Bergman as an English woman, Robert Donat as a Chinese man, Curd Jürgens as a Eurasian who supposedly looks more Chinese than white, and Snowdonia as China. I lived in North Wales for a time and it was rather distracting trying to location-spot, though in the end I had to concede that, probably, one mountain looks pretty much like another, and the Chinese-style sets create the atmosphere appropriately. Ingrid Bergman doesn’t even attempt to sound English, but she manages to make a character who could appear insufferably saintly very likeable and human, and her scenes with Robert, in particular, are extremely touching. Curd Jürgens is a rather uncharismatic love interest, he and Bergman are necessarily chaste, and there is little chemistry between them, but blazing passion would have been all wrong.

Seen through unforgiving modern eyes, maybe there are things one would change about The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, but I like to be a time traveller. There are many who think Ingrid Bergman should have had an Oscar for her performance, and it’s certainly true that she makes a far more appealing saintly heroine than Julie Andrews. The final act, the journey across the mountains, is perhaps less successful than the rest of the film, but there is a satisfying prickle of tears to be had when the children arrive at their destination singing ‘This Old Man’. There is another scene in the film where you will cry much more …

Robert Donat, Curd Jürgens and Ingrid Bergman

And so to Robert as the Mandarin. He doesn’t look Chinese, despite the costumes and make-up, but it doesn’t matter and nor, really, do all the other inaccuracies (though there are endless reviews online where people grind on and on about them). He is the Mandarin, remote and forbidding at the beginning (dubbed into Chinese in some early scenes) who grows to love Jen-ai, whereon he’s actually a little mischievous and exudes the Donat warmth and charm in abundance.

Throughout the 1950’s, Robert’s health had been in steep decline. He made The Magic Box in 1951 and then was unable to work again until 1954 (Lease of Life, and on stage as Becket, giving perhaps his finest performance at The Old Vic in Murder in the Cathedral). By 1958, Robert’s breathing difficulties and asthma attacks were extremely debilitating. However, that was not the only battle he was fighting. It was found, when he died, that he had a large brain tumour.

‘Although we knew he was not in the best of health, none of us on the unit suspected that he was desperately ill. He didn’t allow us to know … There was one day when I really thought he had hit rock bottom – but the next day he turned up at the studio and went on by sheer will-power.’

Mark Robson, interviewed in 1958 (from Kenneth Barrow’s biography of Robert Donat*).

Robert Donat as the Mandarin of Yang Cheng

My late father was of that generation. He fought in the Second World War, then quietly filed it away and never spoke of it again (until his later years and even then, only snippets). Of course there are courageous people today, but there was a remarkable fortitude, an almost unimaginable bravery and dedication embedded in the people of that time that we can find difficult to understand today. Gladys Aylward seems to have had it, and so did Robert Donat. You see that immense bravery and Robert’s absolute dedication to his craft so clearly in this film. He is obviously not well. In some scenes, his speech is thick, and his once magnificent voice can no longer perform with its old power. He walks hesitantly. Robert was only 53 (not much older than I am), and to see this fine, fine man brought so low is devastating. And yet, his performance as the Mandarin is never pitiful: the truth of the character and the truth of the story are there in his portrayal, his presence fills his scenes as it always did but now with added poignancy, and his final scene with Ingrid Bergman, where the Mandarin tells Jen-ai he has become a Christian and bids her farewell, is perhaps the most genuinely moving you will see on screen. Because it is the most real. It’s all perfectly in character, but we are watching a great actor saying his final goodbye to his audience. He knew it and so did Bergman.

‘It is time to go, old friends. Stay here … for a little. It will comfort me as I leave to know it. We shall not see each other again, I think. Farewell Jen-ai.’

Robert Donat's final scene

Ingrid Bergman's genuine anguish

The great actor leaves the stage

‘I think that not having worked for five years and having been an actor all his life, he was very happy that he had this film and that he was with people he knew loved him and with his own crowd again, that his last days were working days.’

Ingrid Bergman, interviewed in 1958 (from Kenneth Barrow’s biography of Robert Donat*).

© Gill Fraser Lee, all rights reserved.

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*Mr Chips, The Life of Robert Donat, Kenneth Barrow

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo inspired by The Magic Box

2 Dec

Oscar-winning director Martin Scorsese is in the UK at the moment promoting his latest film, Hugo, which, it was announced today, has been named best film by the National Board of Review in the US. We’ve been delighted to see that Mr Scorsese has referenced the inspiration he took from Robert Donat’s 1951 film, The Magic Box, in his interviews.

The Magic Box, produced and directed by John Boulting, is a biopic telling the story of British cinema pioneer William Friese-Greene. It was the film industry’s contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain. The great honour of starring as William Friese-Greene was offered to Robert, who accepted and gave film audiences their first sight of him in Technicolor (shot by Jack Cardiff). Many of the leading British actors and actresses of the time filled the film’s minor roles, including Laurence Olivier, Margaret Rutherford, Richard Attenborough and Eric Portman. The screenplay was by Eric Ambler from Ray Allister’s biography.

Check our new Where to buy page to source your copy.

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Indie London‘s Rob Carnevale has very kindly allowed us to reproduce his recent interview with Martin Scorsese.

Hugo – Martin Scorsese interview

Interview by Rob Carnevale
Hugo, Martin Scorsese

MARTIN Scorsese talks about some of the inspirations behind his new movie Hugo including the films that first captured his imagination as a child going to the cinema.

He also talks about working in 3D for the first time and why he feels he would like to do it again and where he sees the future of cinema as well as its history.

Q. This is about the power of movies to inspire people. Can you remember the first time you sat in the cinema and were really inspired by a film?
Martin Scorsese: I think for me movies, for a long period of time, were a refuge, in a way… I have to say that because of having asthma I was not allowed to do… it was 1944-45 and I wasn’t able to do anything sporty or with animals. So, I was pretty much taken to the movie theatre very often and I saw many films in the ‘40s and became in amid of the Western genre because what I couldn’t go near, or be near, there it was on the screen. And I started making my own little drawings… almost like a comic strip. But the film that I think created the biggest impression on me about film and about filmmaking – the one that prompted me to say ‘maybe you could do this yourself’ – was The Magic Box.

My father took me to see that in ’52 when I was nine or 10-years-old. The thing about that film was not just the moving image but it was the obsession and the passion of the people at that time. It told the story of [the inventor of the first movie camera] William Friese-Greene, played by Robert Donat, who invested a lot of sweetness in the character and yet he was a man who was so obsessed that his life was destroyed by it. There was something about that film, the love, the passion, that he had for the potential of this new machinery… coming at a time, too, pre-World War I, at a time when the whole world was experiencing major change up until 1914 or so. It was going to be such a different society – HG Wells, Jules Verne, you know – and so cinema… something happened when I saw that picture. And it has that wonderful scene in it, too, with Lumiere’s the train coming through the station. So, that was the first time and at home I started drawing more pictures… pictures that moved. But there was something about the beauty of his obsession with the potential of the mechanism itself, the creation of celluloid… of course it’s all different now with digital but it’s still about telling stories with a moving image.

Q. The film comes across as a love letter to silent movies and to that embryonic period. How important is it to you that today’s generation recognises where movies came from? And how important is it that film as an entity is preserved?
Martin Scorsese: Well, I think that the problem isn’t so much with this generation, it’s the same with every generation, which is the obligation of the one before to inform and to expose the next generation to the great art of the past… great, good, possibly good, maybe not very good! But to a certain extent that goes with everything. I think there are many painters who study the old masters in museums, as well as theatre, language and, of course, literature. I guess there might be a school of thought that we don’t have to see anything of the past to express yourself artistically… to write a novel, to write a play, to make films.

But I think if we make it available, one studies or one becomes aware of the older work that came before, of the Old Masters… It’s easy if you want to reject it… that’s part of the process, to be angry and say ‘well, that’s not good at all’ or ‘this is wonderful here’… and then come back to realising that maybe you were a little too harsh 20 years later, or 30 years later, that you were too harsh on certain people when you were younger. But the reality is that it’s exciting to do that with children and a younger generation. It’s very exciting. And you never know how young people perceive what they see on the stage, or particularly from cinema. I don’t know what the cinema screen is going to become…

Hugo

Or rather, I do know… I think if things run their course it’s going to be something that’s not going to stay on the stage – I should say on the wall – but something that’s going to be moved out to the audience in many different ways. And that could be a very low budget independent film or it could be a film that cost a great deal of money. But I do think it’s important to make younger people aware of what came before in every aspect of every art form. And it’s exciting too because as you do that, very often as you’re working with young people or students mentoring them, the ideas you get from them… I get a lot out of them… whether I’ve expressed it correctly or not I don’t know. But I do get a kind of regeneration of that… to see that excitement sometimes. I mean we showed Asa and Chloe The Magic Box and we gave Asa Yojimbo.

Q. With this and The Artist coming out as well there does seem to be a resurgence of interest in silent cinema…
Martin Scorsese: You know, I have no idea about The Artist. I mean, I understand it’s a silent film in black and white. But again, a lot of this has to do with timing I think. I don’t know what’s going on in California. I live in Manhattan. So, I had no idea these films would be coming out at the same time. The thing about the silent cinema, you have to understand, is that while there was a great response to it, that was one kind of cinema… but when cinema started, everybody wanted sound immediately and depth. The Lumiere brothers made several films in 3D. And they’ve been restored. I saw them. They were made in the ‘20s. Eisenstein was working on 3D when he had his heart attack… can you imagine Eisenstein films in 3D? Can you imagine what they would have done? Can you imagine the mind of someone like that? Orson Welles created something in 3D.

So, for me… look, more than 90% of silent films have gone anyway… they’re gone and continue to go. Nobody cares about them. If you really see a silent film in its original form, like the restorations that Kevin Brownlow did of Rex Ingram’s pictures… if you look at The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at the proper speed. I mean, it’s another language completely. At times the acting is extremely modern, too. But one has to get into that mindset to see it. I think I saw a few silent films as a kid but they were always scratched up and they were jumping around. I didn’t understand what the attraction was aside from the moving image itself. I don’t think there’s anybody around now who really experienced that era of silent cinema. But I wonder if, as you say, the possibility of several films being released at the same time is maybe an appreciation and getting back to the roots of how this all began.

Hugo

Q. Did you adjust any of your work ethic to direct in 3D? And is it something you’d like to take into your future films?
Martin Scorsese: Yes it is something that I’d like to take into my future films. I just happen to be a great admirer of it because when I first saw those new masters, as I said earlier, I was taken into another space as a child and tapping into that imagination of a child is the same thing that I depend on and look for whenever I make a film. It has to be there every day… that thrill and the imagination. Somehow seeing those first stereoscopic images has that… and maybe my last connection to childhood imagination is that feeling and so I’ve been fascinated by 3D all my life. If it’s used appropriately for the story, then why not? [It’s] the same as colour or sound or a big screen. As I’ve always pointed out, for a long period of time colour was something really special. At first, everybody complained about it until 1935 when they got it right, with Technicolor. Then by 1970 it was announced that every film would be made in colour and we were all appalled because what about some of the great films that came out of England in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that were made in black and white?

This is what we were aspiring to. And so somehow colour became, through the demand of the audience and through a generation that grew up not on black and white films, just became natural. It became part of the story and part of life. But yes I would like to deal with 3D as an element in the future. The equipment is getting much more flexible, and they’re working on ideas to get rid of the glasses, so why not?

© Rob Carnevale, Indie London, all rights reserved.

This interview and the image of Martin Scorsese may not be reproduced without permission.

For more on Hugo, we recommend the Self-styled Siren’s excellent review.

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Lions in the Scottish Highlands

29 Nov

Thank you to David Cairns for letting us reproduce this post about ‘The 39 Steps’ from his wonderful film blog, Shadowplay. (It helps if you know that David is based in Scotland!)

39sq

THE 39 STEPS, we all agree, is where Hitchcock’s thrillers really catch fire. He’d been making films since 1922, scoring considerable success, and many people, including Hitch himself, may have thought he had already shown what he could do — but this film raises the bar still further. It pleases me inanely that this is Hitchcock’s Scottish film, with Scottish settings, characters, and a source novel by Scotsman John Buchan (pronounced “buckin”). In Hitchcock’s movie, as in Buchan’s book, man of action Richard Hannay must follow the trail of a spy ring from London to the Highlands.

Hitch and collaborator Charles Bennett (who shares Hitch’s cameo in this one, a unique honour) famously abandoned or greatly altered large parts of the source novel, so that even the title became something of an irrelevance, to be explained away as brusquely as possible, but if you read the book (I did, years ago) it’s fun to see how elements are reconfigured: a throwaway line about a trip to the music hall is expanded by Hitchcock into a hilarious opening sequence, introducing hero Hannay, Mr. Memory the mnemonic genius, and a female spy calling herself Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), whose murder sets things in motion.

Inspired by a surge of national spirit, I hopped on the train to retrace Hannay’s steps, but since I’m perennially cash-strapped, I only went from Edinburgh’s to the Forth Bridge. Hannay, fleeing the scene of a murder for which he’s automatically blamed, boards the Flying Scotsman locomotive, sharing a compartment with a traveller in ladies’ undergarments and another loudmouth, who seem to keep up a non-stop barrage of double entendres and man-of-the-world smut for the entire journey.

The train pulls into Waverley Station, Edinburgh, and one of the men flags down a news vendor. “Speak-a da English?” he asks. I wouldn’t try this in Scotland if I were you. The newspaper purchased carries news of Hannay’s pursuit, and the suspense is ramped up.

I don’t see any newsboys in the station when I’m there, but they have an entire newsagents shop, and a Burger King, which I feel gives me the edge on old Hannay. I hop in the train, with a ticket for North Queensferry, which means I’m crossing the bridge but no more. As Hannay is evading capture in his train, I’m snapping pictures out the window of mine. No knicker salesman, no compartment, no steam engine, no Madeleine Carroll…

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There are actually two bridges now, the Road Bridge and the Rail Bridge, but the Road, a common suspension job, is regarded with contempt by locals, so when we say “the Forth Bridge” it’s always certain which we mean. A massive Victorian construction, it’s constantly being painted with a special paint, known as Forth Bridge Red. The Victorian engineers who constructed it said that as long as you kept painting it, the bridge would last forever. They start at one end, work there way to the other, then start again. It’s become the perfect metaphor for any unending, Sisyphean task.

Of course, when the bridge was privatized, the management idiots announced that they would no longer paint the bridge, since it was “too costly and dangerous,” which is an amazing bit of half-wittedness. MORE costly and dangerous than allowing it to rust? Sure enough, soon bits of corroded bridge were dropping onto North and South Queensferry, and a lot of money had to be spent repairing the structure. Painting has resumed.

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The Forth Bridge, by Cairns.

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The Forth Bridge, by Hitchcock.

One of the things that’s so outrageous about THE 39 STEPS is the use of narrative ellipsis to get around tricky plot problems. The first major cheat is near the start, when a woman is killed in Hannay’s flat, knifed to death, without any explanation of how the killers got in, or why they didn’t then kill Hannay. Hitchcock at this point apparently had little fear of those annoying folks he called “the plausiblists” — although the list of Hannay’s neighbours includes a “Porlock”, suggesting that he was aware of the various ways in which ordinary persons can hinder the artist at work.

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The second massive cheat comes after Hannay eludes his pursuers on the bridge — we not only don’t see how he gets down from the bridge, the next time we see him he’s strolling through Glen Coe, about a hundred miles away. Hitch gets away with this kind of barefaced cheek in part because he’s so good at transitions. A cut from a screaming woman, discovering a corpse, to a train blowing its whistle, is a particular classic. But the movie abounds with inventiveness in sound design — when the female spy is murdered in his flat, Hannay remembers her words, and we hear them, as if filtered through a long-distance telephone connection.

Then there’s the famous crofter scene, a touching and atmospheric vignette, featuring John Laurie (previously seen playing Irish in JUNO AND THE PAYCOCK) and Peggy Ashcroft, which deliberately slows the pace and alters the tone: Hitch was fond of tonal shifts and his movie really unfolds like a piece of music. A terrible shame that the mesmerising Peggy didn’t make more films — we otherwise see her mainly in old lady stuff like A PASSAGE TO INDIA. Laurie was a real-life crofter’s son, although in the lowlands rather than the highlands. The accents all through the Scottish section are wildly variable — the bad guy’s maid is hilarious, although she gives it her best shot.

Such is Hitch’s verve and cheek that he can get away with things that really make no sense — Hannay travels to Scotland in search of the fiendish master-spy with the missing finger. Once in the right neighbourhood, he asks around about newcomers, and determines that there’s only one. Visiting the fellow, he finds him hosting a party, and is lulled into a state of relaxation. And soon he is shocked — shocked! — to discover that this is none other than the man he has been looking for. Well, duh — and yet it’s an effective shock moment, don’t ask me how.

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(Note the bad guy’s bespectacled daughter, named as Patricia, just like Hitch and Alma’s only child. It’s not our Pat, though, since she was only a little nipper at the time.)

Another great trick, when Hannay survives being shot at close range due to a hymn book in his pocket, its presence established afterwards in an impudent cutaway back to the crofter, whose coat Hannay has taken.

This being a typical Hitchcock nightmare, the police are useless and don’t believe our hero, so now he’s on the run again, and worse still, he has no clues left to follow. Never passing up the chance to take the mickey out of public speakers and large gatherings, Hitch bundles Hannay onto the stand at a political rally, where he bungles the candidates name, so that McCorquindale becomes McCrocodile, but otherwise scores a rousing success with an extemporised speech which not only serves as a potted story-so-far autobiography, but sets out the film’s woolly but sincere vision for the world’s future, after the current threats to peace and freedom have been eliminated. But this grants Hannay only a temporary respite, and he’s soon in the hands of the police — or are they? — again.

Fate throws him a blonde, Madeleine Carroll, and soon the two are famously handcuffed together. Up to now I’ve been calling him Hannay, because up until now he’s been more of a plot function than a character, but Robert Donat gets to do some proper acting once the girl is in the picture, and she’s very good too — Hitchcock called her the first proper Hitchcock blonde.

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Hitchcock and Hannay treat her rather harshly, seemingly as punishment for her giving him up to the police on the Flying Scotsman (quite reasonably, under the circumstances). Ivor Montagu recalled that the writing team quite deliberately invented as many miseries as possible for the character — this seems to have been the beginning of Hitch’s odd reputation as a misogynist (I can understand it, totally, in FRENZY, but not earlier), and Hitch added to the theme by inflicting constant practical jokes on poor Madeleine Carroll — more on this in another post.

It struck me in the past that Carroll enters the story rather late, after her earlier appearance on the train. This time, it seemed perfect. Hannay begins as a nobody, his flat undecorated, his face unglimpsed until long into his first scene, and we are able to accept him as our substitute because, although he’s vague and unformed as a piece of writing, he’s embodied by the appealing Donat. Only halfway through the story does Hannay really start to dominate his own story, and he does it by dominating Carroll, though he, like his audience, can’t help but admire her pluck. In obstreperously resisting everything Hannay does and says, Carroll becomes a useful foil, and also a winning character — she confounds cliche more thoroughly than previous Hitchcock heroines.

(In NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Hitch completely reverses the blonde’s introduction, to further avoid cliche: when Eva Marie Saint recognises Cary Grant, on another train, as another wanted murderer, she not only doesn’t give him up to the cops, she blatantly comes on to him.)

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An overheard phone call, implausible but not wildly so, enables our protags to make it to the climax, back at the music hall where the film began — in another of Hitchcock’s musical MacGuffins, Hannay recognises a tune that’s been running through his head as the one from Mr. Memory’s act, and the entertainer becomes the key figure in the whole plot. I’m not sure if Memory’s punchline — answering a question asked during his act, even though it gets him shot — is totally clear. Bennett and Hitch were proud of the idea that Mr. Memory cannot bear to let a question go unanswered: it’s a matter of professional pride. But the idea isn’t, perhaps, as fully expressed as it could be. But his death scene is properly moving and absurd (the secret formula he’s memorized is sheerest crap – a MacGuffin of a MacGuffin) and we’re also graced by a cameo by a positively nubile Miles Malleson. And what do we say when we see Miles Malleson, remembering his scene as the dirty-books buyer in PEEPING TOM?

Altogether now — “He won’t be doing the crossword tonight!”

© David Cairns, all rights reserved.