Posts Tagged ‘Alfred Hitchcock’


 

gaslight poster

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Gaslight aka Angel Street, The Murder in Thorton Street,  A Strange Case Of Murder  (1940). Directed by Thorold Dickinson. Screenplay by A.R. Rawlinson and Bridget Boland, from the play by Patrick Hamilton. Starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wyngard.  84 minutes. ** 1/2

Gaslight (1944). Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John R. Balderston.  Starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury. 114 minutes. *** 1/2

So here we have yet another stake through the heart of the oft-repeated premise that “Remakes Always Suck.”

This also serves as eloquent argument against the premise that remakes are coming closer together, today, than they ever have before. We’ve already covered the three versions of THE MALTESE FALCON made within ten years, the last of which was the only great one; and, only slightly less dramatic, three versions of THE THREE MUSKETEERS made within thirteen years, of which only the last one can be legitimately argued to have gotten the story anywhere close to right. The movies under discussion this time out, made only four years apart, may seem an extreme class, but a couple of the Musketeer movies were that adjacent, and the Falcon movies were almost as much so. Still, four years is an unusually narrow gap. It may not be our all-time record – that would be two POSEIDON ADVENTURE movies made a year apart –but it’s close.

Both films are based on the 1938 play set in the Victorian era about the cad of a husband who, to keep his wife from realizing that he’s a con man searching the attic of their London home for priceless jewels, sets about deliberately driving her insane – or, more accurately, convincing her and the world that she is insane, which pretty much amounts to the same thing. If this seems an unlikely premise, please keep in mind that much of what occurs here presents a genuinely sophisticated understanding of the dynamic between some emotionally abusive husbands and their terrorized wives. In the real world, the household becomes a closed system, where the wife is cut off from any possible reality check on the part of friends and family who might be able to halt her disintegration; she is made to believe that everything that happens is her fault; she is offered little moments of affection and reward that are just as cruelly withdrawn, in a manner designed to make her feel that the blame for the loss is her own. Pathetically grateful for any indication of kindness, as her self-esteem is reduced not just to zero but to negative numbers, a woman in this position can be made to believe the most ridiculous premises, even those that contradict the evidence of her own senses. In 1940 and 1944, the premise might have seemed over the top; today we’ve seen and recognized too many real-world examples where exactly this form of abuse was made to work, and the saddest truth associated with either movie is, frankly, that when each movie’s independent investigator arrives to tell the heroine that she’s not insane and that her husband’s merely been twisting her perceptions to make  her think so, the ladies in question are, if anything, restored to sanity more easily than most. Witness the oft-seen moment from any number of domestic abuse cases, where the wives with the freshly broken nose and the freshly fat lip refuses to press charges, insisting to cops that the bullying subhuman who did it is “a good man.” Of course, the premise that a woman might have the right to defy her husband, or even walk out on him if he treats her poorly enough, was still sufficiently radical at the time these movies were made – let alone the time being written about – that the play hedges its bets somewhat, revealing in its final movements that the cad has another wife and child off in another country, and that our heroine is therefore not actually his wife,  and is therefore free to react as his treatment of her should have been enough to dictate.

The two movies are not identical. Though based on the same play, and including some nearly identical scenes, there are substantial differences between them, down to the plot level. The 1940 version is much more faithful to the play; the 1944 version changes many of the particulars, in large part to better showcase and protect its stars.

Gaslight (1940): Not Really About Her

The 1940 film, half an hour shorter, begins with a shadowy figure sneaking up behind a sweet little old lady, Alice Barlow (who’s embroidering a pious sampler, just to make sure we get the dastardly nature of the crime), and strangling her. Years later, the two upper floors of her now-abandoned home are sealed off, and the rest of the home renovated for new tenants:  Paul and Bella Madden (Walbrook and Wyngard, respectively), who pull up in a carriage, and at very first sight are recognizable to us as not the happiest of couples. Bella looks haunted, almost spacey. Paul seems stiff and resentful around her. There is no clear sign of even theoretical affection between them.

Clearly, he has already started to break her down, to make her the malleable thing he wants her to be. One immediate effect of this is that she is immediately removed from the role of protagonist; that position is taken by B.G. Rough (Frank Pettingell), a retired detective who worked on the old lady’s murder case and whose suspicions are rekindled now that the house is occupied again. Rough is an older man, and a rather roly-poly one, so any question of actual sexual chemistry between him and Bella, in the latter scenes, is negated. The suspense lies in whether he can get the goods on Paul, and rescue Bella, before the damage done to her is irreversible.

We further learn, from a visiting relative who is denied permission to see Bella, that she has always been a frail person whose health has always been in question. There has never been any strength in her, never any personal will aside from the will she borrows from those who take care of her. We first meet her when she’s already reduced by her husband’s treatment of her and we therefore have no idea what kind of person she could be, if treated with genuine love or kindness. We feel sorry for her, but that’s about as far as it goes, and as far as it’s ever permitted to go.

The revelation, before long, that Paul is the murdered woman’s ne’er-do-well nephew, and that his beastly decision to drive his wife mad began with her discovery of a letter that he sees as possible evidence against him, further removes her from the center of this, her own story. It really has nothing to do with her. She saw something she should not have seen. Before that point she was just a woman who didn’t realize she was the victim of a bigamist. At some point, he either actually liked her or thought she would be useful cover to have around; we honestly don’t know, nor are we given enough evidence to know.

We find out in both movies that Paul’s nightly disappearances from his home are cover, to re-enter the home through the attic by first cutting into a nearby abandoned building, so he can search for the jewels he’s been after all along. In the 1940 film, the explanation for what he does when he leaves at night comes fairly early, to both us and detective Rough. Also in 1940, the sexual chemistry between him and the sinister young maid is explored to a much greater degree than what we’ll get a mere four years later; he actually indicates to her that when his wife is locked up in the asylum, the two of them will be free to rumpty-dumpty, and in fact takes her on an extended date to a show at a London music hall, which doesn’t add as much as to the story as the screen time would seem to indicate but does permit the film to include an extended high-kick dance number, which was considered an absolute good, once upon a time.

The climax reveals that the mind-bogglingly valuable rubies the whole thing has been about, all along, were all hidden in Bella’s locket, which defies plausibility, as the locket is about the size of her thumb and the jewels would all have to be the size of periods on a printed page. It’s hard to credit those as valuable rubies. Those are the chips removed from valuable rubies when the jeweler cuts them into a pleasing shape.

Still, once Detective Rough tells her what’s up, both apart from her husband’s presence and while he’s there fuming to hear it, Bella’s confrontation with her exposed “husband” is a powerful one, in which the weak, fragile, shattered wife actually does look like she’s about to stab him with the knife in her hand, out of sheer loathing. One advantage of not really knowing her character beforehand is that we honestly don’t know what she’s going to do; she is revealed for the first time in those scenes, and it’s a powerful moment. The film is beautifully shot and furnished with sumptuous sets, and though neither quality is quite as magnificent as what we’ll get a few short years later, it ain’t nothing, either. It’s not a bad film. It’s actually a pretty good one, better as a predecessor to its particular classic than the first Maltese Falcon  was to the Humphrey Bogart version. But few people would remember it today, or have any real reason to see it,  if not for its position as footnote to what would shortly follow a few short years later.

 

 

Gaslight (1944): Beware The Attack of Pretentious Gallic Smoothies

The 1944 version – which is, let’s say right off, to an order of magnitude a greater feast for the eyes – offers us a lot more, in the way of substantive changes, than just the introduction of far more charismatic actors.

To start with, the victim of the original murder is not a sweet little old lady making pious samplers. She’s a world-famous opera singer, renowned throughout the world, and the owner of jewels that were bestowed upon her by a smitten crowned head of state; it therefore becomes much more believable that the jewels are priceless enough to have been worth all the to-do made about them. (She doesn’t appear in the story as a character, but we see a portrait of her, and can tell that she was still relatively young and beautiful when killed; and on top of this her character helps inform that of her niece Paula (Bergman), who is here presented as a girl who has substantial singing talent of her very own, who foolishly gives up her ambitions when she falls in love with her future “husband” Gregory.)  Gregory (Boyer) a piano player who once accompanied Paula’s aunt, has pretensions of a great future as a composer, but we soon learn that he really doesn’t have much to offer in that line; he is a non-talent, who is in evil ambitions subverts a girl who, we are made to believe, is a much grander one.

None of this is critical to the plot, but note how well all of it moves the endangered wife to the forefront. In the original, he owns the house and really doesn’t need her around while he searches it; he just begins his campaign to drive her mad because she’s seen an incriminating letter and he was treating her like crap anyway. In this version, she’s the inheritor of the house. He needs her to gain access to it, and so he uses his wiles to first deprive her of her ambitions and then of her property and then of her freedom of movement and then of her sanity; it’s a much greater series of betrayals, and it’s all focused on a girl we know. We may first meet her when she’s a traumatized teen being removed from her aunt’s house in the aftermath of her aunt’s murder, but by the time we catch up with her again on the continent, she’s far away from that tragedy and, though clearly still traumatized by it, a formidable young woman with substantial potential (if not in music, then at least for attaining happiness). We see, in her radiance, the depth of the love she thinks she’s found, in Gregory…and Bergman sells this feeling so substantially, so perfectly, that she’s substantially more beautiful in these scenes  than she was in her earlier hit Casablanca. And she’s not exactly a crone in Casablanca.

Charles Boyer’s acting style has not aged as well, alas – he was a pretentious gallic smoothie then, when that was a good thing, and that has only gotten worse as most screen acting has evolved in more naturalistic directions – but that actually rebounds to the movie’s benefit. Occasionally, a flawed performance is precisely the right kind of flawed performance. For instance, McCauley Culkin was not half the actor his co-star Elijah Wood was, when they played together in The Good Son, a thriller about a murderous, sociopathic child…but the limitations to his affect, and the general off-ness of his line readings, only furthered the impression that his character was a little monster only mimicking the proper emotional responses in order to seem properly human.  Much the same thing occurs whenever Tony Curtis played a con man, pretending at sophistication; the pretense was transparent, and rightly so. There about a million similar examples. To our modern eyes, Boyer is affected and corny…but exactly the kind of untrustworthy guy who might impress a naïve young girl who doesn’t know any better. It is a perfect twist on the material.

With this chemistry, Boyer playing Gregory as the most romantic, smooth-talking sharpie alive, and the first signs of trouble appearing as Gregory insisting to his lady love that of all the possible places where they can now settle, he wants a small house on a London Square exactly like the one that Paula has steadfastly avoided since her childhood trauma…the arrival at the house where most of the action takes place now plays a lot differently. Paula is apprehensive, but believes that she can be happy there; Gregory is clearly manipulating her and just beginning his transformation from eloquent romantic to control-freak, but she is not yet a doormat; she has every reason to believe that she might be happy. Her character begins from a place a lot different than the character from the first film. In this remake, we know her well and like her before she ever enters the house with her creep of a husband. She has a character  that can be broken down. And so it plays at a much higher level when he acts downright unhinged, during a tourist visit to the Tower London; when he starts hiding household objects and leading her to believe that she has stolen them; when he encourages her to believe that she has had memory lapses; when this movie’s sinister young maid (a teen Angela Lansbury, in her movie debut), bullies her out of her plans to leave the house and go for a walk. It hurts to see this vivacious, beautiful, talented young girl having the life sucked out of her. It hurts less to see the same thing happen to somebody who’s already a doormat.

Paula’s connection to music also adds to another key moment of the story. Both films include a scene where the husband consents to her attendance at a high-society party that includes a piano recital, only to cruelly accuse her of stealing the watch which he has hidden away in her handbag, and drive her from the room in tears. In the 1940 version, there is no special reason to believe that Bella is enjoying anything more sophisticated than the rare opportunity to be seen out in public. She seems profoundly uncomfortable, even in her seat.  In 1944, it’s music. It transports Paula. Bergman is able to indicate that her character feels joy at the sound – and the cruelty of then robbing it from her is profoundly underlined.

In this film, there is no indication that Gregory’s dalliance with the nasty young maid goes any further than flirting on his part and yearning on hers; perhaps, despite clear evidence that the husband is a heel in other ways, 1944 Hollywood didn’t want to hinge too much of the story on that hard-sell, adultery. It’s a loss, even if the removal of the dance-hall sequence is a dramatic plus in that it doesn’t take us away from the main story at a point where it honestly doesn’t need to bleed tension.

(The smaller role doesn’t stop young Angela Lansbury, a teenager at the time and still a name performer today, from nailing what she’s given.  She says in an interview among the extras on the DVD set that includes both movies that she was very kindly treated by everybody – which she notes isn’t always the case, for actors of any age, and good luck in particular for the young girl enjoying her first big break.)

The revelation that Gregory is sneaking back into the house after leaving at night takes place a lot later in the story than in the 1940 version, and the solution to the mystery of the missing jewels is much more sensible and therefore much more satisfying. Paula’s confrontation with her securely bound husband, once he’s been exposed, is a killer-diller; after two hours of being reduced to an emotional invalid, she now gets to expel all of her anger and betrayal, and though there’s never any real sense, as in 1940, that she might kill him, the sudden return of the girl who’s been robbed from herself is the story’s heart, and Bergman nails it in one of the great sequences of her career. She won the Academy Award for the part, deservedly.

But the best of the story’s improvements to the play may be the most “Hollywood”; i.e., instead of giving us a fat old retired detective who swoops in to solve the case just to show he can, we get Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotton), a Scotland yard functionary who also, persuasively, serves as possible future romantic interest for Paula.  He’s accused by another character of being in love with her. He very likely is. There is no reasonable way, even at movie-melodrama speed, for her to reciprocate. She only has a few minutes freed of the influence of her “husband.” But it is clear at the end that she is letting her rescuer into her life, and that at bare minimum she has found a friend who will be a positive presence in her days, to counter the loss of the monster who tried to destroy her. This is also more satisfying, if less realistic, than the heroine of the original getting nothing more than the opportunity to breathe fresh air. Cotton, who often played profoundly decent men, serves that function well here, though it needs to be noted that he could radiate evil when he needed to; see Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow Of A Doubt (1943). Gaslight was the seventh full-length film of his career, all made in a three-year period, and was astonishingly his fifth great one. Nor was he finished with greatness for the decade; The Third Man was still to come.

This is, by the way, one of those occasional stories that adds to the English language; “Gaslighting” somebody has become a slang term for a pattern of psychological torture designed to get them to doubt their reality, and ultimately get them to blame themselves for their own abuse. It is therefore worth noting that when I recently mentioned on-line that I’d seen this movie for the very first time, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction editor and notable scamp Gordon van Gelder immediately insisted that my memory was failing me and that we’d seen it together. It took me hours to twig to what he was doing. Thanks a lot, Gordon.

The Incriminating Papers

1940 version: a reasonably effective melodrama, marred by remote characters and too narrow an arc for its leading lady. 1944 version: an all-time classic.

*

And now, the wife remembers it differently…!

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Gaslight aka A Strange Case Of Murder (1940). Directed by Thorold Dickinson. Screenplay by A.R. Rawlinson and Bridget Boland, from the play by Patrick Hamilton. Starring Anton Walbrook and Diana Wyngard. 84 minutes. ***

Gaslight (1944). Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John R. Balderston. Starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Angela Lansbury. 114 minutes. *** 1/2

This is one of those times when I agree with Adam on the ratings of these films.  Both films are well made and for the most part well acted.  But neither one really blew me away.

I had seen the 1944 version a few times while growing up and always felt that the heroine was just too much of a pushover.  I mean first they bundle her off to get her away from London and the murder scene.  Then, some guy she’s only recently met  is allowed to take over running her life and takes her back to the murder house.  Then, some guy she doesn’t even know is allowed to convince her that not only is she not going mad, but her loving husband is nothing more than a murderer and thief.  Talk about a pushover!  And, this is the heroine we are supposed to root for?

I never knew of the existence of the 1940 version or the play until we stumbled across the listing on the cable barker.

I found the 1940 storyline much more satisfying, but constrained by the boundaries set by the stage play. It had a bit more feel of reality when a former police officer recognizes a suspect from a past case, and takes the case open again.  I mean isn’t this what COLD CASE is based on?

I guess I need to spoil everything if I want to state my major gripe with the story.  Guy meets girl/wins girl/moves with girl to supposedly strange (to him) place/begins controlling every aspect of girl’s life/begins convincing her she is going insane/is found out by third party and destroyed all in time to save girls sanity and life! The very idea of a murder occurring and the criminal being so obsessed as to hatch this convoluted plot to get his hands on the property.  It boggles the itty bitty grey cells.  And yet, the 1944 film, following these basic storylines, is considered by many to be a minor masterpiece.

Both films are very set bound and claustrophobic, which intensifies the drama.  The earlier version, just didn’t have the budget or directorial talent to pull off what the 1944 film did.

The Gaslight of 1944 had Ingrid Bergman playing weak with a steel core  and Charles Boyer playing slick and cruel.  One deserved all the praise heaped on her, the other wellll, not so much. Boyer’s stilted stylization in this film was really just an unease with acting in English and unfamiliarity with his co-star nd director. His later roles where he evinced a sly charm, came after much more time had passed and he was more a part of the American movie community.  But here, playing the foreign fella, well, the stiffness comes off as cruelty and “foreigner “ standoffishness.

Both films are well worth the time invested in their watching.  Neither is more, or less, than the set piece it was meant to be.  The earliest a good attempt at interpreting the play, the latter and lush film remembered for one of many roles of an incredible actresses career.

 


First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Rear Window (1954). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the story by Cornell Woolrich. Starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Raymond Burr, Thelma Ritter. 112 minutes. *** 1/2

Rear Window (1998). Directed by Jeff Bleckner. Screenplay by Larry Gross and Eric Overmyer, from the story by Cornell Woolrich. Starring Christopher Reeve, Darryl Hannah, Robert Forster. 89 minutes. **

Other Related Films:  Too many ripoffs and homages to count, among them Disturbia (2007), which is so similar to Woolrich’s story that the owners of the film had to go to court to get a ruling that they hadn’t violated Rear Window’s copyright.

This one’s an oddity, folks: a remake that was actually based on a breathtakingly brilliant idea for a variation on a movie that was a classic to begin with, that nevertheless utterly failed to live up to its promise.

The source was the short story “It Had To Be Murder,” by suspense great Cornell Woolrich, all about a man temporarily laid up with a broken leg who has nothing better to do while he heals than look out the window and watch the lives of his neighbors. As it happens, one of those neighbors has a murderous secret involving the sudden disappearance of his wife. Our hero gradually pieces together the clues – all predicated on his neighbor’s odd behavior, all of which has other potentially innocent explanation — and ultimately brings the malefactor to justice.

There is no girlfriend in the story, no great emotional character arc linking the mystery to a pivotal crisis in the hero’s life. It’s just something that happens to him, something that makes his brief existence as an invalid a little more interesting than it might have been otherwise. (Other Woolrich stories are more emotionally fraught: the failure of SOME great moviemaker to adapt his horrific stunner, “Momentum,” remains a mystery.)  The subsequent movies required more, and are in at least case significantly more satisfying.

rear-window_cartel

The Original

The 1954 version written by John Michael Hayes and directed by Alfred Hitchcock presents us with the case of one L.B. (nickamed “Jeff”) Jefferies (James Stewart), an international action photographer who is laid up in his rarely-used Greenwich Village after getting a killer photo of a race car wreck, which he evidently got from standing in the road while the twisted wreckage spun ass-over-teakettle toward him. (In a sense: serves him right). We gather from much of the dialogue about his activities, taking photos in hot spots around the world, that getting the impossibly dangerous shot is his specialty. The man is a danger junkie, now confined to a wheelchair and about to go crazy as he waits the last few days for his cast to be taken off. He’s an action hero reduced to inaction hero. He has nothing better to do than to look out the rear window and watch the lives of his neighbors.

The courtyard his tiny apartment overlooks is one of the great indoor sets in the entire history of the movies. It is a complete, living neighborhood in and of itself, comprised of a number of different buildings of different design, overlooking a central area where the inhabitants have carved out flower beds and little patches of lawn. There’s even an alley, through which Jeff can see the street, and passing cars. For the 112 minutes of the movie, the action never moves from this place, except to pull deeper into Jeff’s apartment where he has conversations of varying import with his visiting nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), his old war buddy Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), and his socialite girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly), who is pressing him for further commitment.

The first thing to note here is that this is a guy who honestly cannot decide whether he wants to be married to Grace Kelly. This is a plot point that has appalled friends I’ve shown the film. But some men do flee domesticity, and one of the grand, subtle jokes of the vast multi-layered tableau that fes Jeff as he looks out his window and spies on the outside world is that every single life he spies upon presents him with another possible future, depending on whether he says yea or nay to Lisa. There’s the pair of ardent honeymooners, pulling down the shades and initiating an implied marathon love-making session that seems to go sour after only a couple of days; there’s “Miss Lonelyhearts,” the miserable woman stuck in a particularly miserable and increasingly despairing singlehood; there’s “Miss Torso,” the good-time party gal who always has men hanging around and represents the erotic opportunities Jeff might enjoy if he ever lets Lisa go; there’s the middle-aged couple with the little dog, who every night drag their mattresses out to the fire escape and snore away in relative comfort, all sense of passion gone; and finally, there’s the Thorvalds, whose marriage has turned toxic, and who have so little to say to one another that they’re almost always visibly in separate rooms, framed by different windows. It’s worth noting that nowhere in this slice of life are there any children. Children would fall outside the metaphor, which is like all great dramatic metaphors felt without any particular effort to underline it. What Jeff sees is very firmly the face of Jeff’s dilemma.
  
The second thing to note here is that all of these spied-upon characters have an arc of sorts, played with perfect modulation as the drama in the Thorvald apartment – where the much put-upon husband (Raymond Burr) appears to have offed his wife – takes center stage. Almost all of them pay off. So does the drama in Jeff’s apartment, where in between banter with Stella and romantic complications with Lisa, he resists and then embraces his obsession with Thorvald’s apparent crime. It’s a marvelously layered film, with comedy and relationship drama and even questions over the creepiness of Jeff’s activities all braided together in a tapestry of remarkable design. These days, some viewers may find it requires patience. But it rewards that patience. I don’t think it has a single dull moment, and key among its best attributes is the way the clues to Mrs. Thorvald’s murder don’t just pile up in some facile way, but at times offer competing explanations, and reasons to turn away.

Nor is Jeff given a free ride on the moral issues. His voyeurism – hardly asexual, but certainly bored – is criticized by everybody in his circle, and the movie takes delight in using this to indict the audience. The moral issues are so nuanced that it is even possible to feel sorry for Thorvald, after everything Jeff has put him through in order to prove his case. Thorvald is not an evil man, per se; just a very unhappy, very weak, very trapped one who has done a horrendously evil thing, and when he confronts Jeff (who he presumes to be a blackmailer) with an anguished, “What do you want from me?”, that one line is likely the most empathetic moment of Raymond Burr’s career.

But then all the performances in the film work at an equal level. It is among the best films of James Stewart’s career and one of the best of Grace Kelly’s. Even the supporting players across the courtyard inhabit their roles with grace and a deep sense of humor.
 
It’s very nearly a perfect film, and though it’s been imitated a dozen times, it’s hard to think of any wrinkle that would even stand a chance of improving on it.

Enter Christopher Reeve.

The Remake

The sad but stirring twist in the life of Christopher Reeve is so well known that it need not be recapped here; suffice it to say that I concur with author Brad Meltzer’s take on the man, that he achieved fame by playing the indestructible Superman and greatness standing in the mortality of all of us Clark Kents.

I don’t hold with the popular wisdom that Reeve was never great on screen except as Superman; I would argue that he was pretty damn chilling as a sociopathic playwright in Deathtrap, and pretty damn good a couple of other times. He was certainly no liability in Remains Of The Day opposite Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. performed in front of the camera on several occasions following the terrible accident that made him a quadriplegic, and was therefore a natural when somebody hit upon the startling brainstorm of casting him as the lead in an updated Rear Window. Why wouldn’t it work? Jeff in the original is pretty damned vulnerable as a man of action who has been sidelined by a mere broken leg; how much more helpless will his character be, when he cannot move a muscle under his shoulders, and requires live-in help just to get a cup of water when he wants one? Wouldn’t that ramp up the scares even more?

This is not a unique idea. As it happens, there is an entire subgenre of what we’ll now call “handicap thrillers,” involving physically impaired characters who must overcome their limitations in order to overcome the evil intentions of various murderers and thugs. Among them: the terrifying Wait Until Dark, which starred Audrey Hepburn in the adaptation of the Broadway play about a “world champion blind woman” terrorized by gangsters searching for a cache of drugs in her apartment;  See No Evil, which pit a blind Mia Farrow against another murderous plot; and Mute Witness, about a woman who…well, you can figure out the rest. There are even other thrillers featuring lead characters in wheelchairs. Hell, thriller writer Jeffery Deaver has written a pretty damn terrific series of novels about his quadriplegic forensic scientist Lincoln Rhyme, one of which was made into an unfortunately not-very-good movie with Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie.

The inherent claustrophobia of Rear Window should have worked wonders with the predicament applied to a quadriplegic, and with a quadriplegic we all loved in the lead.

And this much needs to be said: in spurts, Reeve is terrific. He always excelled at the dazzling smile during an emotionally vulnerable moment, and has several opportunities to pull off that trick here. Throughout this film, he has scenes that play off the heartbreaking realities of life as a one-time vital person reduced to immobility, including one where he regards a closet teeming with clothes that he will likely never wear again. Early scenes, with him in the hospital bleakly wishing he was dead, are downright painful to watch, in light of our certain knowledge that Reeve lived those moments and felt those feelings.

But – and boy, do I feel like a heel for advancing this case – he also sabotaged this movie’s effectiveness as a thriller from the get-go.

The problem is that, by the time it was made,  Reeve was quite rightly an advocate for spinal cord research, and for state-of-the-art medical treatments for people with spinal cord injury…and as such, acutely aware that this movie, by far his most substantial acting role after the accident, was the best place to advocate for his cause. So he made demands, and nobody involved with the production had the heart or the good sense to say no to him. So it begins with him in the hospital, features him declaring that he will walk again someday, and includes scenes of him undergoing arduous physical rehabilitation to triumphant music long before he even gets to the apartment where he will observe the murder across the way.

This is absolutely fine if you’re making an issues drama of the challenges faced by quadriplegics, less fine if you’re making a thriller – a short TV movie, no less – where all these scenes take time and bleed tension from the story you’re supposed to be here to tell. Another problem arising from this is that, as a result of all this can-do spirit, the character he plays is exactly the same at the beginning of the movie as he is at the end; he doesn’t rise to the occasion, and he doesn’t learn about himself. His character arc is a straight line.

The story might have worked better if Reeve had been a despairing recent quad who imagined he had little to live for, for most of the film, and was brought back to some interest in life by his engagement with the murder scene across the street…a natural plot development given how many quads attempt suicide in the early years of their disability – but such attention to emotional realities, or at least dramatic ones, would have interfered with his personal mission to make this a hidden advocacy film.

Reeve’s advocacy harmed the film in another way. At the time, he also said he wanted to show the kind of tech available, to aid quadriplegics in living fulfilled lives. So there’s a lot of that, in his character’s home: including voice-activated computers that control the lights, the elevator, the phones, and so on. His character has an attendant in residence at all times, a fulfilling career with partners who respect him, and a beautiful woman who by the end of the movie will fall in love with him. This is all nice stuff to have. It doesn’t replace a functioning body, but it makes the transition to a disabled life as easy as it can be. So what we have, here, is quadriplegia as Christopher Reeve lived it – which, while it functions as drama, is absolute death when it comes to a film of suspense. Imagine he was a quad of more modest resources, living on disability, in a cramped space with only limited assistance – and THEN suspected that a murder was taking place across the street. This guy can afford to set up surveillance equipment, just in case he misses anything – and, by the way, unlike the original film’s protagonist, whose voyeurism bothered his nurse, his girlfriend, and his cop buddy, this guy’s video cameras are treated as cool stuff by almost everybody concerned. The voyeuristic aspects never receive substantive criticism.

Time hasn’t been kind to the concept, either. In 1954, the rarity of air conditioning – a factor in other Hitchcock movies discussed here in the past– meant that it was perfectly reasonable for the residents of a middle-class apartment complex to live their lives in full view, playing out entire dramas in view of their windows. In 1998, it doesn’t make nearly as much sense…especially since the Hitchcock provided a far more spacious courtyard with apartments set at varying angles and not the direct-line-of-sight posited by this movie. Also – as any thriller writer will tell you – the invention of the cellular telephone has been absolute hell on plotting, and its inclusion in the remake is no exception. Too, the killer here is a one-dimensional designated asshole, not nearly as interesting or as oddly sympathetic as Raymond Burr was in the original.

Finally, there is no wonderfully complex courtyard across the way: just a single dull edifice that fills Reeve’s line of sight and offers him what amounts to a collection in television sets in the form of conveniently-placed windows. There is no comparison to what we were given in  1954. It’s flat, in every sense of the word.
 
This was not Reeve’s worst remake of a notable film: his last movie as a fully-abled man was a terrible version of Village of The Damned, and we will someday cover his participation in a truly unfortunate version of The Front Page. (It was called Switching Channels, and he played opposite Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner.) All we can say of this one is that it just didn’t work.

The View From The Apartment

1954 version, an undisputed classic. 1998 version, a missed opportunity.

*

And now, I watch from cover as the wife engages in sinister activities…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Rear Window (1954). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the story by Cornell Woolrich. Starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Raymond Burr, Thelma Ritter. 112 minutes. *** 1/2

Rear Window (1998). Directed by Jeff Bleckner. Screenplay by Larry Gross and Eric Overmyer, from the story by Cornell Woolrich. Starring Christopher Reeve, Darryl Hannah, Robert Forster. 89 minutes. **

Other Related Films: Too many ripoffs and hommages to count, among them Disturbia (2007), which is so similar to Woolrich’s story that the owners of the film had to go to court to get a ruling that they hadn’t violated Rear Window’s copyright.

I so wanted to like the 1998 rethink of Rear Window.  I mean come on it had Superman starring and proving he just might really be.  Besides, the original was really showing a few grey hairs (not just the one’s previously claimed by Jimmy Stewart). But, alas, it was not to be.

In 1954, and even up to the mid 70’s, it may have been commonplace for someone to become a temporary voyeur via injury or illness.  Boredom had fewer releases than today, little television, no computers or video games.  Books were limited at most libraries by budget and distance to said library.  And most magazines came out monthly, so a long convalescence had a lot of downtime.  So its believable that the Stewart character could easily start watching his summertime neighbors and playing mind games with himself.  Its even possible that those same folks might not notice him watching, or could pass it off as just a friendly guy at his window.  Creepy neighbor watching became the meme much later.

The things I find totally unbelievable for that time or EVER, is that any straight man, whether injured or not, rich or poor, or whatever, could have Grace Kelly in her most gorgeous state, throwing herself at him (and wantonly at that) and he can resist and actually ignore her!  PUHLEEZE!  Dude didn’t have a broken leg, They were feeding him large quantities of saltpeter.  Next, the home nurse never insists he leave the apartment, just cleans him up and lets him hobble about his two rooms.  Six to eight weeks in solitary confinement?  Is that doctor recommended?

Now, how about that remake?  I can believe that architect Christopher Reeve has enough cash reserve for all the wondrous toys both medical and electronic he buys after his accident.  I’m sure he had much better access than the average newly paralyzed patient and just figured he could walk back into (so to speak) his job and most of his old life.  Ummm…  ??? How?  Most of his firm’s partners would attempt to block him from anything to do with the job or the public and claim it was for his own sake. 

Now, how about the crux of each thriller, the supposed murder of the neighbor’s wife.

In both films the murder is based on the supposition that a disappearing wife meant a murder had been committed.  Neither is proven conclusively, but both disabled leads taunt the murderer into a full on attack.  In the 1954 film, I honestly believe that Jimmy Stewart, hobbled or not, had a fighting chance against Raymond Burr. Not so with Chris Reeves.  How could he?  His ability to defend himself was purely run and hide.  he couldn’t draw a gun or knife on his attacker, he could only call 911 if that.  The suspense was only if he could breathe long enough for help to arrive.  In other words, uhh, no really.

So, to sum up.  1998 had a good try at an update, but needed less disability to keep the suspense alive.  1954 needed a leading character who wasn’t wearing a giant “L” on his forehead for the whole film.


Keep Your Mouth Shut, Or Say Goodbye to the Kid

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, from a scenario by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlison. Starring Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre, others. 75 minutes. **

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the earlier screenplay. Starring James Stewart, Doris Day, Alan Mowbray, Hillary Brooke. 120 minutes. ***

You and your family are on holiday abroad. You are intent on having a good time and minding your own business, but a mortally wounded secret agent warns you of an assassination plot threatening the stability of the entire world. Naturally, you resolve to tell the authorities…but before you can the bad guys kidnap your child and threaten murder if you ever tell the police what you know. All you have left is your own resources, your own determination to get that child back…and an imminent rendezvous at a concert in  London’s Royal Albert Hall, where an assassin’s bullet has been scheduled to coincide with a climactic clash of cymbals.

This is the dilemma that faces the protagonists of the only story Alfred Hitchcock ever saw fit to revisit, the two Men Who Knew Too Much; two very different films similar in plot outline and much more than “similar” in the Albert Hall sequences that mark the high points of both, but which are in other ways quite different. Hitch himself told Francois Truffaut that the first film was the work of a talented amateur and that the second was the work of a seasoned professional; he is not wrong about that, even though both are second-tier work, missing the subtext and psychological richness that mark the best of the suspense master’s output. It’s safe to say that without the master’s name on it, the first would now be totally forgotten if not the presence of the great character actor, Peter Lorre; and that the second, fun as it is, would likely not be remembered all that much more. (Sorry; even as lightweight Hitch goes, it’s certainly no North by Northwest.) But as far as originals and remakes go, they make a deeply instructive pair, because a side-by-side comparison demonstrates the best possible reason to make a remake in the first place: i.e. fixing what was, initially, wanting.

Lorre

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

The first The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) presents us with Bob and Jill Lawrence (Banks and Best), a British couple on vacation in St. Moritz. Jill is a competitive-level skeet-shooting champion; she misses her shot here, but her skill is established, and anybody who wants to know whether this will eventually be a story point should recall the maxim once posed by Anton Chekhov. The first thing worth noting here is that while kids in jeopardy are a long-standing tradition in movies, kids in jeopardy can be annoying when they almost die stupidly, and Betty gets on our crap list right away when she chases a weiner dog – which we take to be hers, though it is never seen again – onto a ski-jump slope, and comes within a few feet of being mowed down by a skier in competition. (Given Hitch’s later fame for staging elaborate and persuasive set-pieces, it’s worth noting that the near-accident is presented as unconvincingly a product of stock footage, a reaction shot, and the editing room, as anything you are ever likely to see in a Hitchcock film ever again; this in part because it’s a low-budget film from the very early days of sound, and in part because Hitch was, as he later admitted, still learning his craft). 

It is also worth noting that Bob and Jill feel like place-holders instead of characters. We are invited to root for them because the camera is on them, not because either one of them does anything to make us fall in love. Bob pulls what is allegedly a neat trick involving his daughter’s knitting, which he hooks onto the tux of a man dancing with Jill, so it unravels during the waltz and tangles everybody on the dance floor in twine…but the moment is pure movie hokum; it’s impossible to believe that the dancers would all fail to notice that this was happening, for as long as they do. And there is absolutely no sense, aside from the natural assumption, that this couple has any real affection for their child, until that child is kidnapped; there simply isn’t any real chemistry between spouses or between parents and child.

(It’s worth noting, by the way, that even by the standards of the era, where some actors seemed to have used their cigarettes as substitutes for actually giving a performance, it’s downright cringe-worthy to see star Banks take a deep drag and deliver his next line with a big, white cloud of toxicity puffed directly into his little girl’s face, at what amounts to point-blank range. Betty doesn’t seem to mind much. The actress, Nova Pilbeam, retired from show biz only a few years later but is is apparently still alive, her iron constitution providing a terrific defense against second-hand smoke.)

The subsequent assassination of the secret agent makes little sense even by the flexible physics of Hitchcock movies. The bullet, evidently fired by a sniper outside the building, cracks a window, its trajectory carrying it over a very crowded dance floor with other bodies in every direction, and then manages to hit the secret agent in the chest even though – I cannot possibly stress this enough – even though he is at the moment dancing with Jill and any bullet striking him in that spot would have had to go through her first. It is in short such a magic bullet that the one responsible for hitting President Kennedy and Governor John Connolly is revealed as a muggle bullet by comparison. We will forgive the happenstance that has it piercing the agent’s chest UNDER his tuxedo without making a hole in that tuxedo; the logic of bullet holes was extremely loose at this point in film history, and if we started to complain about that one we’d have to complain about all the others and would probably be here all day. Still, the moment doesn’t work at all.

Following Betty’s subsequent kidnapping by the bad guys, the action moves to London, where in between bouts of dramatic cigarette smoking, Bob decides to investigate the assassination plot himself, and (because this movie is only 75 minutes long), finds the conspirators right away, through a visit to a creepy dentist. There is some goofy nonsense involving a “Church of the Sun,” which manages to hypnotize Betty’s monocled twit of an Uncle, but for our purposes the important part has to do with Bob’s almost immediate capture by the bad guys, who have him in custody and ENTIRELY ineffective for most of the rest of the film.  Led by droopy-eyed, cigarette-smoking Peter Lorre – they naturally spend this time blowing smoke in his face. (Lorre’s filmic output consists of many great films like M and Casablanca and The Mask of Dimitrios and The Maltese Falcon and Mad Love and Arsenic and Old Lace where he gave performances by, you know, brilliant acting, and a couple of others like this one and the tv version of Casino Royale where he substituted his cigarette; he is profoundly creepy here as always, but really, the cigarette is being asked to do far too much of the work.)

The climax is an all-out assault by cops where Bob accomplishes almost nothing – the very model of the ineffective hero.  (Jill’s skeet-shooting does come into play, however, a twist telegraphed for almost the entire length of the movie that nevertheless got outright applause at the one repertory theatre showing where I saw it, years ago.)

Is there anything to recommend the film to earn it its unlikely reputation as a classic? Well, yes; the Albert Hall sequence, where the leadup to an attempted assassination is set against a classical music piece, while Jill sits helplessly in the audience. It is a remarkably effective and suspenseful interlude, the one thing here that would lead any viewer to think that this young Hitchcock fellow might indeed have a future. But even there, there’s an astonishing gap in logic. The point is made, following the non-fatal shooting of the foreign dignitary, that the concert resumes after a slight delay, even though the assassin has not yet been caught. This is a line of unnecessary passing dialogue that doesn’t really affect the plot at all, but…umm, what? Does this follow any real-world behavior you recognize?

But that brings us to the remake, which is in very small part an exercise in brilliantly re-staging that scene and providing it with a surrounding story that is somewhat more worthy of it.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

The second The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is separated from the first by two decades, a generation’s worth of technical advances, a clearly superior budget, and the increased clout of its superstar director. Make no mistake: it is still not a great film. Hitchcock did make other great films in this decade, among them the other James Stewart vehicles Vertigo and Rear Window;  this was merely a solid thrill ride, with little in the way of resonance beyond the doings on screen. (And even as such, not nearly as fun as North by Northwest.) But as a story, it works substantially better, for a number of reasons.

To start with, it’s visually far more sumptuous. The black-and-white cinematography of the original is not particularly special, except in moments. The 1956 film is never less than gorgeous, even during scenes set in Morocco that clearly employ rear-screen projection and other artifices easy to discern by a sophisticated modern eye.

It’s also better storytelling. It actually takes time to get us to know its two leads, Ben and Jo McKenna (James Stewart, Doris Day), an American doctor and his somewhat retired stage actress wife. We learn that they have an easy familiarity, that Jo has a somewhat more refined bullshit sensor than Ben, and that Ben has an amiable awkwardness about him, here shown in his discomfort with Moroccan table manners, that instantly humanizes him and makes him more than a generic thriller hero.

Doris Day gets a lot of crap for her performance as Jo, and particularly for her two renditions of her signature song “Que Sera, Sera,” – a ditty that strikes many modern ears like nails on a blackboard – but, your opinion of the song aside, look at how it’s used as storytelling. We see Jo singing the song while making the bed for her son Hank…who happily joins in to sing a verse on his own. There is strong story value in this moment. You know at once that she’s sung this song for her son many times, and that he takes an uncomplicated, unembarrassed joy in singing it with her. An entire childhood is sketched in with this one unremarkable demonstration of a parent/child relationship. The song comes up again – irritating its detractors still further – at the climax, when Jo uses an impromptu embassy party performance to signal her captive son that she is in the building and looking for him; it is also pure hokum, but it is hokum based on character, a climax that is therefore infinitely more satisfying than the one in the original, where the lair of the villains is stormed by police and Bob Lawrence accomplishes little before being knocked out beyond freeing  his daughter from a locked room.
    
The gradual entrapment of Ben and Jo into the espionage plot is a lot better established than in the original. In this version, it turns out that spy Louis Bernard sought out the McKennas because he has reason to believe a vacationing couple might be involved in the assassination plot he’s investigating. As it happens, he has mistaken the pair for the actual culprits, the Draytons…who in turn note how familiar the Mckennas are with Bernard and assume that they’re associated with him.  It’s a wildly unfortunate series of coincidences that gets the McKennas in trouble, but then coincidences are perfectly fine as plot devices when they make matters worse. They’re only unacceptable when they make matters better. The net that gradually draws around the McKennas in the first half hour of the film is a perfectly acceptable evocation of the capriciousness of fate, and works quite well at setting up the conflict – best of all during the scene where a mortally wounded Bernard, who’s disguised as a street arab, staggers through a crowded market toward the man he knows to be a doctor, who will not be able to help him. The moment where his false brown skin color comes off Stewart’s hands is downright horrifying in its subtext: a visually compelling cue for the danger being passed from one man to another.

Every element of the story is improved. In the original, when Jill finds out that her daughter has been kidnapped, she turns away, dazed; she looks downright stoned, and it’s such a terribly designed scene that it’s difficult to empathize with her. In the 1956 scene, physician Ben tells Jo that he has something to tell her, which he will only impart if she does what he says and takes a pill he has offered her. It is a sedative, which he has prescribed to lessen her shock. Even with the sedative, she is downright hysterical. The scene speaks on more than one level: Ben’s cold-blooded practicality in a crisis, Jo’s tremendous love for her son, the size of the hole that’s just been ripped in their lives.

The plot even works better when the movie moves to London. In the original, when Ben decides to go after the kidnappers himself, the piece of paper he has picked up from the dying spy leads him directly to a dentist affiliated with their conspiracy. The dentist may be creepy, and Bob’s encounter with him effective enough, but the lead still seems too easy; almost spoon-fed. The remake addresses this by sending Ben on a wild goose chase to confront a hapless taxidermist named Ambrose Chapell, who clearly knows nothing of the conspiracy…when he should be visiting a house of worship named Ambrose Chapel, instead. It’s a funny, frustrating, and suspenseful interlude, raising the possibility that Ben’s independent investigation might end before it begins. Best of all, it defuses what would otherwise be an overpowering sense that everything here happens just a little too conveniently.

The set piece at Royal Albert Hall is largely a shot-by-shot remake of its counterpart in the prior film, but even it works better, in part because Hitchcock plays more visual tricks, among them visual tracking of the musical notation as the orchestra proceeds toward the fatal crash of cymbals. It is lusher, more visually enchanting, scarier, and in part even funnier (thanks to the special attention paid to the guy whose job in that orchestra is to sit there quietly, bored out of his mind, until the time comes to bang those cymbals together).  You may note that Bernard Herrmann, the composer whose famous scores included the famous one for Psycho, plays the conductor – and is even identified on-screen as himself, a bit of meta-humor that he likely appreciated.

We will also note that the scene has been improved dramatically, as well. In the original, Jill silently pieces together the assassination to come while sitting in one of the seats; here, Jo stands at the rear of the auditorium, clearly not part of the audience, her discomfort palpable until it becomes unbearable and she is left silently weeping, utterly lost over what to do. You may, like many, hate the two performances of “Que Sera, Sera,” and indeed it’s not unfair to call Day a mediocre actress at best, but she still acts the living hell out of this particular scene. In a career that was largely dominated by lightweight comedies of no particular memorability – and which she ultimately walked away from in disgust, following horrific mismanagement of her finances and her thespic options by a manager/husband who was either totally oblivious to her desires or downright contemptuous of them – these are likely the best few minutes she would ever have on film.

James Stewart made four movies for Hitchcock, two of which are all-time classics and none of which are less than interesting. (Even the worst one, Rope, is a fascinating experiment, that rises to greatness at several moments.) His The Man Who Knew Too Much occupies a position somewhere in the middle. It’s a solid, nuanced, movie-star performance of a good man forced to rise to an untenable occasion over stakes that affect him deeply. There’s a reason why Stewart’s place among the immortals is as linked to Hitchcock’s fame as it is to the direction of Frank Capra and Anthony Mann; his work for Hitchcock, even in this film where he played the most straightforward character of the quartet, helped give him the impact of a star who could express inner darkness while still projecting basic decency.

This was no small thing.

The Crash Of Cymbals

Hitchcock said it to best: The first film is the work of a talented amateur. It shows genius in spots, but is otherwise not very good. The second film is the work of a professional at the peak of his craft – not his best work of the period, but never less than assured.

And now, the wife prepares to shriek from the cheap seats…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, from a scenario by Edwin Greenwood and A.R. Rawlison. Starring Leslie Banks, Edna Best, Peter Lorre, others. 75 minutes. *

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes, from the earlier screenplay. Starring James Stewart, Doris Day, Alan Mowbray, Hillary Brooke. 120 minutes. ***

I was actually looking forward to seeing a Hitchcock film I had yet to see.

Adam and I, early in our relationship, took a trip to Universal Studios and had to see the special effects exhibit  framed around the works of Sir Alfred. We entered the hall with about a hundred fellow visitors and perused the photos and films names about the room.  Adam and I began happily checking off the films we had seen and making note of those we hadn’t.  Most of the crowd just mulled about waiting for something to happen.  After all this was Universal and a special effects exhibit, so I guess they were waiting for someone to pop up and yell BOO!  Nope, a guide came out and began asking folks how many of the listed films they had seen.   Never had I been so bothered by silence as then.  Only one other couple in that room had even remembered seeing at least 3 of the master’s works.  As for Adam and I , we stopped counting somewhere around 12 films, with many more yet to go, realizing we had seen more by far than most others in that place.  We sat wondering why these folks had come to see this particular exhibit if they had no clue about these films.  The Hitchcock tour closed a few months later to be replaced by some cartoon-related attraction, but Adam and I miss it to this day. (Especially when we use our Bates Motel towel set).

Ahh, but on to the films.

I understand why Hitchcock felt an absolute need to right this wrong in his career.  The early version (1934) was clearly made by a filmmaker constrained by budget and his own learning curve. The characters are absurd, exhibiting a lack of warmth I can only attribute to poor scripting and worse acting.  We get to meet a disappearing dachshund who nearly causes the death of the soon to be kidnapped “child”,  a mother conveniently a champion skeet shooter, a poor maligned father who takes abuse with a cheerful smile, and a group of friends and who don’t question why a child who has been travelling with her parents and pet must suddenly stop and visit an never before heard of aunt in a different country. 

Next, we deal with the lack of reality in both the shooting and the sudden angst of the parents.  The shot rings out, the spy slumps over to whisper those needed clues, and dies without a hole in his dinner jacket or blood spreading out anywhere.  Come on, even in the 30s a death was a death.  And, now suddenly, when the kid disappears(and the dog, but no one mentions this), the parents get all upset, when earlier they would have gladly bundled her off to the nearest boarding school or convent.  PUHLEEZE!  These parents early on show all the warmth of a pair of wet shoes and only daddy shares a childlike joke with his daughter, more like a friend than parent.

So, I quickly gave up hope that this (I cant use “old” cause the film was released the year my mom was born and she’ll be annoyed by the old word) first version would resolve in a logical or satisfying manner, and I was right.  The cops can’t shoot straight and are afraid to take a kill shot.  They are more interested in the residents of the homes they take over than the killers firing at them.  And, of course, it all falls on skeet champ mama to save the day, after ineffective daddy gets all the leg work done.  Last I checked shooting skeet is waaayyy different than offing a human through an open window, who also happens to be holding another human shield in front.

Now let me get on to the musically irritating, but eminently better 1956 version.

I was born in the early 1960s, therefore “Que Sera Sera”  was sung and played around the house a LOT.  Did I learn to despise it?  YES!  Do I still cringe when I hear it?  YES!  Has anyone actually analyzed the message handed out by this little ditty?  Obviously not really, or maybe this ear worm is the reason for all the ills suffered by the baby boomers and Gen-Xers..  After all, the song does say just roll over and accept whatever happens, and that does seem to be the problem we face.  So I guess I can blame part of the woes of the world, since the 1960s, on the effect that the placement of this one song , in one film, had on the world.  But, Don’t blame Doris Day, she was just the delivery system for this ennui bomb.

In this version we have a more believable family group.  Older, doctor husband, hot, young musical theater star wife and precocious spoiled child.  There is actually a semblance of familial feelings seen from the start.  This said, when the fan gets hit, the couple who worries about arranging for a sitter in the hotel for their 8 year old child while they attend a local restaurant, have no qualms turning said child over to a couple who amount to total strangers who happen to share the bond of a common language.  Ummm..??? Maybe this comes from a jaded sense of the 80’s  and children on milk cartons, but I remember my folks cancelling plans, rather than leave me with an unknown sitter.  Same time frame, better parenting?  Maybe?

Then, these caring, loving parents refuse the help of professionals in the mistaken belief they only they, with no expertise, can rescue their child.  OK.  Right!  The film follows the same pattern from here as the original, but the red herrings and set ups are MUCH better, but still, that damn song is the key, or is it?  By the time daddy doc finds the kid, the song is over and the bad lady kidnapper is helping the kid get away.  Happy ending, with a glib last line, as is the trademark of all the good Hitchcockian films, but kinda unsatisfying on multiple viewings.  Now, North By Northwest, so much more fun!


A matter of liberty.

 

 

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay by Sidney Buchman, from a story by Lewis R. Foster. Starring Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Harry Carey, Claude Rains.  129 minutes. *** 1/2

Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977). Directed by Tom Laughlin. Screenplay by Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor, from the prior screenplay by Sidney Buchman and Lewis R. Foster. Starring Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, Dick Gautier, E.G. Marshall, Sam Wanamaker, Luci Arnaz. 155 minutes. *

Other Notable Versions: Too many films were inspired by the original to list, but the only other notable remake was a loose one, Eddie Murphy’s The Distinguished Gentleman.

This much is going to be hard to anybody born before or after a certain date to understand.

Once upon a time, Billy Jack was hot shit.

If you saw that movie when you were twelve and the social environment of the early sixties and early seventies were still part of the air which you breathed, it was possible to watch that movie and consider it deep. It was possible to completely miss the impressive non-acting of several of its principals, the troubled “half-breed” hero spouting native indian philosophies while looking like the whitest of all white men ever to set foot on this planet, and the martial arts sequences that – to put it mildly – cheated tremendously on the protagonist’s behalf, and feel that you were watching a movie that dared to tell the truth. It was possible to hear the narrative-fable theme song, “One Tin Soldier,” and grow absolutely and totally addicted to the special chill that ran down your spine at the point in the lyrics when the village that has just slaughtered another village for its great treasure turns over the stone that allegedly hides it to find the chiseled words, “Peace on Earth.” I know this. I had the single, and for a while there listened to it obsessively.

(Nowadays I ask some tough questions of that fable. Why chisel an inspirational slogan on a monument, and mount it dirt-side down? Why invite the bunch of aggressive assholes in the next village to “share” in your “great treasure,” thus inviting their raid, when you can just tell them, “Sorry, guys; it’s not money, it’s just a philosophy?” Isn’t it really fucking stupid to build an impressive-looking vault, call it your “treasure,” make sure everybody in the neighborhood knows about it, and not also take the pains to make sure that everybody knows it’s monetarily worthless? What’s the matter with you? Do you want to be slaughtered in your sleep?)

Billy Jack (1971), second and best of a series of action-oriented films that began with the much inferior Born Losers (1967),  did have a perfect formula for audience identification: posit a bunch of young, likeable outsiders, living near a town of bigoted dirtbags. Establish that they’re bullied and harassed every time they show their faces. Give them a protector – another outsider, albeit one who can take care of himself and kick ass. Keep pushing him into positions where he has to bruise up dirtbags who badly deserve it. Make sure the bullies are not interested in peace, and that they keep escalating the violence. Make sure that tragedy ensues and that the hero pays the price.

It’s impossible to not root for the hero in a circumstance like that, even if one right-wing acquaintance of mine was so permanently bruised by the film’s suggestion that beating up hippies for no reason might not be a good thing, that almost forty years later  he angrily cited Billy Jack as the sole proof of his major grudge against liberal Hollywood, that (in what I assure you is a direct quote), “long-haired maggot-infested dope-smoking FM types {are} the de facto saviours in every flick.” He honestly believed this. Because of one movie, Billy Jack.

(My written response at the time was so baffled that I’ll indulge myself by digressing at length to provide it.

“I know very few movies that fit this rather demented description, which for me crosses the border into hate speech. Especially the “maggot-infested,” unless you’re talking about zombie movies. Maybe you mean “lice-infested”, which is your desperate projection and something I’ve ONLY seen in one movie hero, Toshiro Mifune in THE SEVEN SAMURAI.

And, ummm, the hero of EVERY flick? Really? Including forty years of cop movies? And ummm, all the science fiction movies, and all the romantic comedies, and all the gangster movies, and all the horror movies, and all the historical dramas?

And, ummm, when even the one example you came up with is forty years old, a breakthrough indie and not a studio-produced mainstream film, and…

…boy, this is like shooting fish in a barrel…

…not at all how you represent it?

I’m not defending Billy Jack, which is a pretty slanted piece of work by design, but I will characterize that film properly. And I will point out that the only real narrative difference between that film and that conservative favorite championed by Uncle Ronnie, Stallone’s adaptation of David Morrell’s First Blood — both being films about Vietnam war heroes who return home as outsiders with hair-trigger tempers, and who are hassled by local authorities about their long hair until they erupt into violence — is that Billy Jack, unlike Rambo, had friends. Those friends fit some of the adjectives you provide, except for two: the absolutely bugfuck “maggot infested,” and the far more central “de facto saviours.” Because if there’s one thing that distinguished the counterculture types in BILLY JACK, it was that they were barely even capable of protecting themselves; they required the unstable Billy Jack to intervene, and thus contributed to the eventual bloodbath.

So what else is there? EASY RIDER? Sui generis. Maybe a few other films from way back when, and those historically set then. Beyond that you have a whole lot of gun-wielding law and order types, who I guess you would call conservatives; a few idealistic liberal types who are rarely presented as action heroes, who appear in issue dramas; certainly damn few of the sort you present.

Let us be honest. You don’t see characterizations of the sort you decry in “every” film for thirty years. You saw liberal positions in SOME films. But you resent seeing them in ANY films so much that it drove you to a sweeping statement that doesn’t even come close to reflecting reality. It’s the logical equivalent — and THIS IS A METAPHOR — of a gay-basher being so panicked by seeing two guys holding hands on Castro Street, and being so offended by having had that vision pass his retinas, that he tells everybody, “I hate San Francisco because they’re all faggots!”)

Anyway, Billy Jack led to The Trial Of Billy Jack (1974), which ended with the beleaguered hero at the center of another bloodbath initiated by establishment forces, and from there to one of the films under discussion today, Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977). It’s a remake of the Frank Capra classic, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), and is surprisingly faithful to the original’s screenplay, as well as its overall plot structure.

In both, a powerful senator dies just as his help is needed to force through a bill much-desired by powerful business interests back home. The wealthy kingmaker wants the governor to appoint a cooperative non-entity to fill out his term; the governor shows just enough backbone to reject the names provided him and appoint someone else, a popular local figure who knows nothing about politics and can be trusted to not try to accomplish anything while warming his Senate seat. Alas for them, he wants to create a national youth camp at the very site the bad guys have invested in; he refuses to play ball; and so they frame him for high corruption, a charge he fights with a grueling filibuster while their stranglehold on the media prevents any word of his fight reaching the people. It all ends with the freshman Senator’s sponsor, a man he once respected, driven by conscience and self-loathing to reclaim his better self and reveal the conspiracy before a startled America.

The story skeleton does lead to some pressing questions: to wit, how could a “national youth camp” (only for boys in the original), possibly not be a boondoggle? Exactly how many kids, out of how many applicants, will be able to attend – maybe one in a thousand? Even if the fund-raising efforts of the nation’s children do come up with enough money to pay for the damned thing, who decides what counselors get to run it? Who secures their travel? Who provides the insurance? Whose neck swings if a kid falls off a rock into a canyon? These are all things that need to be considered, and frankly, neither movie does; nor do they have to. The “youth camp” is just there to be something so wholesome and natural and inoffensive that nobody except a bad guy could possibly be against it.

But in terms of effectiveness, the two films could not possibly be more different.

Jimmy Stewart

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)

It’s easy to laugh at this film, in the wrong way, today. It’s easy to laugh at many of Frank Capra’s great films, in the wrong way, today. They really do come from a simpler time – or, if you prefer, a time that liked to think of itself as simpler.

Jefferson Smith is a perfectly designed protagonist for this story. He’s not just an idealist, not just a fundamentally decent man, and not just – excuse me – a yokel, but an overgrown boy, in that he is driven by enthusiasms and by his perception of the world as a place that generally runs the way idealists wish it would. He is not totally unacquainted with evil, as he knows that his father was murdered at his desk for standing up against a venal corporation, but he still has the capacity for wonder. It makes sense, in a way that it does not make sense of Billy Jack, for him to be tapped as a seat-holder Senator; nobody without a personal axe to grind could possibly disapprove of him. It would be like trying to dig up dirt on Captain Kangaroo. It makes sense, therefore, that his first act when he arrives in Washington is to slip away from his handlers and spend hours gaping at the town’s many great monuments, overwhelmed by a sense of  history that the people seeking to exploit him have lost.

(The montage, like most sightseeing montages in the movie, suggests an insane itinerary if taken in strict chronological order; the actual physical placement of the various sights is ignored, and we are made to believe that Smith leaves the mall, treks out to Arlington, returns to the mall, and while at the mall zigzags from place to place without doing the reasonable thing and seeing what he has to see in order of proximity. Almost every movie tracking a city by its landmarks commits this sin – the remake sure does, in a different context — but it’s jaw-dropping here. The miraculous thing is that Smith manages this miracle of tourism, which would take a couple of days even if conducted with reasonable efficiency, in only about six hours. They grow them fast in the state he comes from.)

(Another point: just how long do you think Jefferson Smith would remain in office, as even a place-holder Senator, if one of his first acts upon being appointed is stomping around town decking all the reporters who wrote mocking stories about him? It feels good on screen, but it’s not the kind of thing the gentlemen of the fourth estate can be expected to shrug off. I’m just saying.)

In any event, James Stewart is perfect as this paragon in a way that he never would be, after his service in World War Two. (He has a reputation, today, for playing paragons of decency, and in his career only played one outright villain, but his roles actually took a turn for the dark with the films he made for Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann in the 1950s.) He can indulge himself in gee-whiz optimism, pretend that he really doesn’t have any idea how the world works, and be surprised when he encounters honest-to-gosh corruption. He can do all this without irony, in a way that few movie stars could today, and make us believe that a tough girl like Jean Arthur’s Clarissa Saunders would have her own idealism rekindled via close proximity with him. The soft focus of the close-up at the moment when she falls for him is a now-laughable 1940s cliché, but damned if it doesn’t work here.

The key thing to note, though, is something rarely recognized: he’s not the guy the story is about.

He’s just the protagonist. He’s a fine role model and a good man, but – aside from a few moments of doubt, and an increased level of resolve – he’s the same guy at the end that he was at the beginning.

The main character? Senator Joseph Harrison Paine (Claude Rains), who sees in him the kind of man he once was, and who is still so co-opted that for a long time he goes along with destroying Smith. The entire movie is a wait for the moment when Paine has had enough, when he has endured so much of Smith’s filibuster and seen so much strength in his character that he cannot bear any further painful reminders of the man he used to be. There is a reason why the movie ends with his surrender, even before we find out whether it makes a difference. Because that’s where the story’s been heading all along, the release we have been waiting for. It only works because it is character evolution refracted against Jefferson Smith as catalyst.

It’s a cynical film about politics with as idealistic a core as could possibly be imagined, and it works to the extent it works in large part because it has the correct Jefferson Smith at its center.

Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977)

By comparison, the first major problem with the remake is that this makes absolutely no sense as a Billy Jack vehicle.

It really doesn’t. Billy Jack is a guy who has been convicted of a number of assaults and at least one vengeance killing; he was once the instigator of a massive hostage situation. Granted, many people in his home state see extenuating circumstances in all his crimes and even see him as a hero for what he’s done, but that support runs strictly along partisan lines; everybody else will see him as a contemptible criminal who should still be in prison. It makes no sense for a governor, even one played by the same guy who once played Hymie the Friendly Robot, to pardon him all his past crimes and choose him as nice, inoffensive seat-warmer guaranteed not to cause any trouble. Seriously – huh?

Even allowing that, it makes no sense in terms of Billy Jack’s character. He may be an outsider, but he’s also been in the armed forces, been in prison, and on several occasions seen local corruption lead to tragedy for the people he’s sworn to protect. How then does he suddenly become the polite, respectable, starry-eyed innocent this movie requires him to be, when he goes to Washington and takes his seat among the sharks? He may be an idealist, but he knows, because he’s learned hard, that the system’s fucked up. For him to suddenly become James Stewart circa 1939 requires a form of retroactive amnesia. If nothing else, it simply isn’t in him to be that polite to power even before he realizes the nature of the scam that’s going on. Any charisma he might have disappears into the background.

The second major problem is that the movie is pretty shoddily made. It’s not that Laughlin didn’t have a budget; swooping helicopter shots capturing your hero with the Grand Canyon as backdrop cost money to film, and even if he blew all he had with that, Washington D.C. remains one of the world’s great movie sets, and can lend a movie class even when the catering table has a hand-written sign advising crew members to take only one plate. No, it’s shoddy in terms of staging. Capra’s staging may have been designed to be invisible, but it was also very conscious: he always knew where to place his camera, where to cut, how often to cut, and how to stage actors so that the way they inhabit a setting, in relation to one another, built tension and excitement. Laughlin’s understanding of this, as evidenced in this film, is only rudimentary. For the most part, people sit around stiffly and recite dialogue at one another. The setups make even the gifted veteran actors, like E.G. Marshall and Sam Wanamaker, look like amateurs in some of their scenes. The staging and performances of some of the very lines that the 1939 cast made crackle are so amateurish that the result looks like what you’d get if a bunch of not-very talented high school students tried to re-enact the original screenplay on YouTube.

One example of this takes place during the opening credit sequence, which follows the ambulance carrying the previous Senator through the streets of Washington. It is an extraordinarily dull ride, as filmed, but there is a particularly awful moment at the midway point, when the ambulance disappears behind a sewer works van parked in the middle of the street, and the camera remains fixed on that van, in the center of the screen, for a disturbingly long time as the ambulance makes a left turn in the distance. Oh, sure, we follow the ambulance again as soon as it comes back into view. But the sewer works van remains in sight for so long that viewers are invited to believe that it’s somehow important and that we should pay attention to it. No. It’s just a fucking sewer works van.

Another example would be the opening narration, over aerial shots of the National Mall. We are literally looking at the Capitol dome when the narrator intones, “This story takes place in the nation’s capitol.” Gee. Thank you ever so much. 

The third major problem is the presence of Delores Taylor, who – in a statement I truly hate making – is, as an actress, a great producer’s wife. It’s not just that (god, I hate being reduced to this), she was not an attractive woman; in Hollywood terms, she’s pretty worn-looking, with a drawn face and deeply sunken eyes. It’s not even that she can’t act very well, though that’s true  It’s that she’s been established as Billy Jack’s girlfriend and that for more than half its running time, the movie has no idea what to do with her. The character arc of the cynical Washington insider who gradually comes to believe in the fresh young Senator still belongs to Saunders – (played by Hollywood royalty Luci Arnaz, who gets an “introducing” credit in the cast list)  — and Taylor is for much of the first half of the film reduced to reaction shots where she nods sagely or utters an approving line, just to remind viewers that she’s still there. It is a fine indulgence of viewers who saw the earlier films, but  this movie falls prey to a common failing of sequels in general and cannot be bothered to even introduce her and establish again just who she is.

Taylor does eventually get a decent scene or two, but before that we have an ugly interlude where assassins, apparently sent by the villain Bailey, corner her and a female aide in a warehouse, intent on gang rape. It’s an all-black group, which is both Bailey’s attempt to pin the crime on a street gang and Laughlin’s cynical cinematic shorthand giving Billy Jack an excuse to beat the crap out of them. Taylor’s character, showing off some martial arts moves she must have learned from Billy, joins in the fight. We won’t question the likelihood of this, even though her character was in previous films a committed pacifist; after all, she’s also a pacifist who has been raped and had several people she cares about beaten, brutalized, and murdered. Maybe she stopped being a pacifist between films. It would make sense. But a persuasive martial artist, even one with limited skills, she is not. She manages to raise her foot about as high as her knee and big scary black men go flying.

Admittedly, you can’t have a Billy Jack film without him beating up a few people, and they might as well be black guys, since the previous films all featured rednecked white guys as his targets du jour. Even counting this scene, James Stewart punches out more people in Capra’s version than Laughlin does in this one. But it’s a terrible scene.

Fourth major problem: Luci Arnaz. She’s terrible. She is no Jean Arthur. She is not even Lucille Ball. I cannot think of any movies or TV appearances where she was better, but it’s hard to imagine any where she’d be worse.

Fifth major problem:  a subplot about a “top secret” file of nuclear secrets, which gets a blackmailer assassinated in the dead of night at Arlington National Cemetery. This goes nowhere. It’s there so this movie can claim some of the same narrative logic as its predecessors.

That said: everything that happens after Billy Jack begins the climactic filibuster is staged as the same events were staged in the Capra film, and we must report that, as Billy Jack receives the telegrams telling him to step down, the telegrams that are meant to destroy him, something magical happens. For almost five full minutes, the inherent power of the material sets fire to whatever flows in Laughlin’s veins, and the man pulls out a performance. It is unexpected and it is electrifying. It is also not worth sitting through the film for. If that’s what you want to see, watch the Capra film again and you’ll get a version that was terrific from the beginning.

The film was only barely released, allegedly because of threats from a sitting Senator. Laughlin said, “At a private screening, Senator Vance Hartke got up, because it was about how the Senate was bought out by the nuclear industry. He got up and charged me. Walter Cronkite’s daughter was there, [and] Lucille Ball. And he said, ‘You’ll never get this released. This house you have, everything will be destroyed.’ [I]t was three years later, he gets indicted for the exact crime that we showed in the movie.” We’re not saying that the implied causality  is impossible. Threats from powerful politicians have sandbagged movies before; certainly, a complaint from supporters of President Nixon helped get a song removed from the film version of 1776.  But the movie’s terrible quality could not have helped. (We have also been informed, by a reader, that lawsuits between Laughlin and his investors were also involved.)  As recently as 2004, Laughlin was working on yet another sequel, which he actually intended to call Billy Jack’s Crusade to End the War in Iraq and Restore America to Its Moral Purpose. (Sanity prevailed, and he shortened the title, though he didn’t succeed in finishing the movie.)

Report From The Committee 

The 1939 film, a historical curio and genuine classic. The 1977 film, a near-total misfire, that achieves its needed level of quality in only a few minutes of performance from the wooden lead.

And now, the wife starts her filibuster…

*

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Directed by Frank Capra. Screenplay by Sidney Buchman, from a story by Lewis R. Foster. Starring Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Harry Carey, Claude Rains. 129 minutes. **1/2

Billy Jack Goes To Washington (1977). Directed by Tom Laughlin. Screenplay by Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor, from the prior screenplay by Sidney Buchman and Lewis R. Foster. Starring Tom Laughlin, Delores Taylor, Dick Gautier, E.G. Marshall, Sam Wanamaker, Luci Arnaz. 155 minutes. 1/2*

Other Notable Versions: Too many films were inspired by the original to list, but the only other notable remake was a loose one, Eddie Murphy’s The Distinguished Gentleman.

I approached these films with a bit of trepidation.  I had never seen either movie, but I was very well aware of the 1939 “classic”.   I also, had vague memories of the Billy Jack series about a guy who kicked people and hung out with hippies.  So, did I really want to venture into this rather rocky territory?

So we began by viewing the 1939 Capra film.  And yes, it very much is a Capra film.  Doesn’t matter who wrote it, this film hits on all the Capraesque qualities I’ve come to know and grow tired of.  Yes, I am going to say a few bad things about the Capra characters.  Naivete is not a virtue!  Redemption doesn’t ever come about via wordsmithing. Good and evil are two sides of the same being.  And, bad girls aren’t fixed by the love of a good man!

Ok, so the big bad politibosses need a chump to placehold for two months.  Get a party man they say, but accept a gosh golly gee Boy Ranger troop leader with ideals.  what does this guy do on his first trip to DC?  While he should be trying to learn what will be expected of him in the Senate, he wanders off on a sight seeing tour.  Right!  He doesn’t even seem aware that he may be inconveniencing people who are waiting for him.  His first task is to attempt to write a bill to present, which he manages overnight.  Amazing!  He has no clue of procedure or law and yet is allowed his piece.  PUHLEEZE! And the very idea that he would attempt a filibuster, just to make a point…Never woulda happened! Never would have been allowed.  Politibosses play a lot rougher than that.

Would the corrupt senior Senator ever have taken the Grinch-like turn if not for the need of a hopeful Capra ending?  Oh come on, the man had already agreed to sacrifice the lamb, led him to the slaughter and even gave the butcher the knife while he held him down.  Not really true to life eh?

I know many “good” folks, but even they have their gray moments.  No human being is pure unto death.  Even Mother Teresa had a PR team for spin on a few things she said (check out the article by Christopher Hitchens).  So how can Capra decide that the black and white approach is all there is?And, gee, come on!  The secretary/girl friday who states early on she’s only there for what she can get, even she gets Capra’d and has a change of heart over the character assassination tango she’s a major player in.  Never gonna happen.  Not back then, and definitely not today.

Now, all this said, the film deserves its classic status.  It’s enjoyable, watchable, incredibly well acted and directed.  With all its flaws, and good view.

This can’t be said of the Billy Jack remake.

Billy Jack is a war veteran with anger issues.  He’s a convicted criminal with anti establishment sympathies.  who would EVER put him in the Senate?  How?  He’s not stupid, he’s run up against corrupt government before, and again I say HE’S A CONVICTED FELON!  Geesh!  Absent a brain, couldn’t anyone in his production company come up with a better classic fit for the man? Well, at least I got to hear One Tin Soldier again.  That was a plus. Or the plus.

All in all, I was right to fear this column.  I found one really good reason to avoid rewatching the Billy Jack films (they stink like a used litter box).  And, I watched a classic film, and found that even if I enjoy the basics, I no longer have a tolerance for the more innocent age that never existed.


When your partner’s killed, you’re supposed to do something about it

First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

The Maltese Falcon aka Dangerous Female (1931). Directed by Roy del Ruth. Written by Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes, based on the novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. 80 minutes. **

Satan Met A Lady (1936). Directed by William Dieterle. Screenplay by  Henry Blanke, based on “a novel” (note formulation) by Dashiell Hammett. Starring Bette Davis, Warren William, and Arthur Treacher. 74 minutes. *

The Maltese Falcon (1941). Directed by John Huston. Screenplay by John Huston, based on the novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet. 101 minutes. ****

*
This is it, people. This is the tops, the coliseum, the test case, one of two film franchises (the other being The Wizard Of Oz), that provide the strongest counter-argument to the facile kneejerk refrain that remakes always suck. Surprise: sometimes they’re not only better than the films that came before them, but so influential, so iconic and so definitive that any previous attempts to wade in those waters are reduced to trivia-question answers.

That’s literally what happened here. In the face of the classic 1941 version, the mere existence of 1931 and 1936 films based on Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon was considered so bizarre that it was once cited in an installment of Ripley’s Believe Or Not!, alongside the tribes with the twelve-inch earlobes and the guy with the curving four-foot fingernails. That’s where I first heard of the two previous films, years ago; and I still find them treated with the same kind of awed disbelief, most frequently on internet lists of movies that you can’t possibly believe were remakes. Few people retain the information, even though one special DVD set of The Maltese Falcon (1941) includes The Maltese Falcon (1931) and Satan Met A Lady (1936) among its extras; a fine buy, though I presume that few people who spend the money on that particular set will make it through both of the two prior versions and that those who do will almost certainly not do so more than once. They’re that inferior to the classic all film buffs remember.

One frequently-cited legend about the classic film’s production claims that John Huston, maker of the final and definitive version, received Dashiell Hammett’s novel as his first directorial assignment and, prior to writing the screenplay, told a secretary at the studio to type up all the book’s dialogue for his reference. Reportedly, she finished the job and placed the stack on his desk, where it sat until a mogul spotted it, read it, and declared it one of the finest screenplays he had ever read.

The story is often used to illustrate the wisdom of “sticking with the book,” instead of just making up any old thing, which the prior versions allegedly hadn’t. The anecdote does have some basis in truth, but is a wild oversimplification of the reasons the 1941 film achieved immortality while the 1931 and 1936 films didn’t. In fact, the 1931 version pretty much stuck to the book too, it even used much of the same dialogue, just as verbatim, for the most part departing from Hammett’s text in only minor ways (as well as some that now strike us as howlers). Even the 1936 version, which improbably played the same essential plot as a screwball comedy, is still capable of startling today in the frequent places where Hammett’s voice, drowning beneath all the tomfoolery, bubbles to the surface for a line or two before being dragged back under. The Huston screenplay is clearly the best, but the story is still there, in both prior cases. Other factors come into play, negatively in the case of the first two and brilliantly in the case of the third.

All three films present us with a private detective, Sam Spade in 1931 and 1941, and Ted Shane in 1936, who is so very good at manipulating the bad guys that he’s never really in any danger. He has a partner that he doesn’t respect very much, and might even hate, who is married to a woman with whom our hero once had a loveless affair – and who would happily resume canoodling with him, were he still at all interested. A beautiful client comes to the office with money, a man she needs tailed, and a cock-and-bull story that both detectives see through at once. Our hero’s partner, intent on making time with a pretty lady, snatches the client and goes off with her, to shadow her suspicious character.

In all three films the partner is subsequently murdered, and our hero isn’t all that broken up about it. He didn’t like the guy. He’s more concerned when he finds himself a prime suspect in the subsequent killing of the likely shooter, the man his client wanted tailed.

Even then our hero doesn’t seem all that worried about being a murder suspect, or concerned that at least one of the cops working the case hates him on principle and would love to see him fry. He asks the pretty client what’s up, finds her frightened and evasive, agrees to continue “helping her,” and in very short order finds himself in the middle of a small crowd of her criminal associates, all of whom are vying for ownership of a legendary priceless artifact that been passed from owner to owner for centuries.

Not only the toughest man in the room but also the smartest, our hero detective plays the various bad guys against one another with nothing but the sheer force of his personality, in what (given the subsequent revelation that he’s almost certainly known who killed his partner since the moment he first laid eyes on the body), amounts the same kind of sadistic pleasure a cat takes in torturing mice.

In the end, the artifact turns out to be a fake, our hero clears his name, and the lady goes to prison for murder.

This  backstory is as contrived a set-up as could possibly be imagined, but that doesn’t matter. As an object of legend, the Maltese Falcon could just as easily be The Lost Ark or The Holy Grail or a really really valuable signed baseball card or even the glowing briefcase from Pulp Fiction; the obsessive recounting of its backstory provides the sense that these obsessed people have lived with its legend for decades, but frankly would serve the same purpose if the story and the artifact were something else (as they indeed are in Satan Met A Lady).  In story terms, it really is no more than what Alfred Hitchcock would come to call a MacGuffin, the object that is important only in that the it drives the characters in their obsession. What matters is not getting the treasure, but what the characters are willing to do in pursuit of that treasure. And how our hero detective reveals himself while foiling them.

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

This first version, which for decades was frequently shown on television as Dangerous Female, can be difficult to watch today, mostly because the performances and characterizations of the John Huston take have so completely colonized our imaginations that any line reading that differs at all from that one is difficult to not see as “off.” Still, it’s faithful enough, so much so that it could be played alongside Huston’s for those interested in a scene-by-scene comparison.

The natural conclusion is that it didn’t work as well, in no small part because it’s not filmed with nearly as much imagination. This is in part because this early in the age of sound, cameras didn’t glide and swoop and follow the actors around as freely as they would only a few years later; they mostly sat in one place and watched what happened, without calling special attention to the story details that merited tighter focus. (This was indeed a regression from the silents of only a couple of years earlier; cameras in those days could make noise while they moved, without anybody worrying about disturbing any important dialogue. Sound pictures had not yet figured out how to compensate.)

But that’s not even the major problem.

The problem is the characterization of Sam Spade.

In the novel, and in all three movie versions, the most startling element of our tough detective’s personality is his utter lack of upset at the news of his partner’s murder. He didn’t like the guy. He had slept with the guy’s wife. He is seemingly unbothered when the guy is killed.

But he honestly doesn’t have to be jolly about it.

You only have to see six seconds of Ricardo Cortez’s performance to see that it’s all wrong. Literally. Six seconds does it.

This Sam Spade is a grinning fool. He flashes his white teeth and projects a deep, off-putting self-satisfaction, communicating not just nonchalance but enjoyment of the events that follow. He betrays no fury. And when he turns in Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels), there’s no indication of any passion deeper than amusement. As a result, his story seems to reach little emotional climax, a far cry from the shattering last few minutes filmed by Huston. Nor does this Sam Spade seem to have any internal life; he recites the lines the screenplay requires of him and does the things his Sam Spade is supposed to do, but never seems to be listening to anybody else. He just meets his marks, recites his dialogue, grins a lot, and lets the film run out. The story doesn’t seem to matter.

The arrest of Ruth Wonderly (who in this version never reveals that she’s really named Brigid O’Shaughnessy) has such little affect on screen that another scene is added to compensate for it: Spade visiting his scheming femme fatale in prison to offer her some “good news.” Now, when the private eye responsible for your conviction, who also happens to have been your lover, shows up with “good news,” it just might bode well for your sentence; and the promise brightens Ruth’s day for all of about ten seconds until Spade reveals that he’s now working full-time for the District Attorney’s office!

No wonder another term for Private Detective is “Dick.”

Bogart’s Spade might have done just this to Mary Astor’s Brigid, but it would have been because he was capable of jaw-dropping cruelty and might have wanted to twist the knife a little more. He wouldn’t have done it, as this Spade does, because he’s so blind he actually thinks she might celebrate the turn in his professional fortunes. (As if not content with that cringe-worthy awfulness, the scene gives us even more; Spade leaves the sobbing in her cell and stops by the matron, telling her to make sure Ruth gets “whatever she wants” during her long prison stay – extra food, clothing, etc. – and that the District Attorney’s office will pay for it. In short, he’s such a dick that he makes this gesture of personal kindness…and then sends the city the bill. Eat me, Spade.)

It’s no surprise that this scene takes place nowhere in Hammett’s novel, which indeed ends with Spade shuddering as the widow of his murdered partner Miles Archer is ushered into his office. Many close followers of the character, who appeared in a handful of short stories and no other novel, believe that he survived this passage by a mere matter of minutes, as she was there to shoot him dead. I happen to believe it myself. An ending where Sam Spade sells out to a municipal authority he reviles and sticks the D.A.’s office with the bill for candies for his imprisoned sweetie is not any kind of poetic improvement.

Also ill-advised: a scene at the very beginning, establishing that Spade’s doomed partner Miles Archer (Walter Long) has learned about his wife’s infidelity and is itching to confront Spade about it. This was, I think, there because of fears that the audience might have failed to register the affair otherwise. It’s a bad change. The scowling man who enters the office he shares with Spade would not then be so jolly and blithe about taking Ruth Wonderly on as client…and even if he was, he would surely wait no longer than her departure from the office to bring up what he’s clearly burning to say. You could argue that there is such a confrontation, off-screen. And I can argue that if it happened, it changes the dynamic between the two men completely, and that we need to see it.  Because we don’t see it, I refuse to believe it happened…and that renders hideous the implication that it should. Miles Archer makes a hell of a lot more sense as a guy who has absolutely no idea that his partner Sam Spade has nothing but contempt for him, and has indeed slept with the wife who feels the same way.

What does the film have to recommend it? Recognizing as we must that none of the principal players are as good as the ones Huston later brought to the table, and that the lead is in fact much worse, a few are genuinely praiseworthy.  Dudley Digges is not as formidable a Casper Gutman, in size or in gravitas, as Sydney Greenstreet, but he brings a ridiculousness to Gutman’s treasure hunt that fits the story. There’s a nice running gag involving his infatuation with Spade’s phrase, “Fall Guy,” which he repeats multiple times with awed delight, each time putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable. (He also has a hilarious comb-over.) Also notable is the era’s designated supporting creep, Dwight Frye, as the “gunsel,” Wilmer Cook: he doesn’t get nearly enough to do in this version, but his slow burn at Spade’s abuse is one of the best things in this film.

The movie was a minor hit for Warner Brothers, just before the repressive Production Code would have prohibited some of its sexual innuendo and the brief shot of Bebe Daniels in Spade’s bathtub. Only a couple of years later, this mild raciness was enough to prevent the film’s re-release, and pave the way for version number two.

(And, not to put too fine a point on it, we do mean “Number Two.”)


Satan Met A Lady (1936)

About the greatest favor this second  version did posterity is change the name of its private detective from Sam Spade to Ted Shane and the fabulously valuable object everybody wants from the Maltese Falcon to the Horn of Roland. Any resemblance to the original story is painful enough as it is, but any pretense that its hero is actually, literally, the same guy Dashiell Hammett created and Humphrey Bogart transformed into a screen icon is worse than mere irritation; it’s sacrilege. The name change and the disguised MacGuffin insulates us from that, a little. Not enough, but a little.

Even the movie seems to recognize this. It is the only one of the three that doesn’t trumpet its connection to Dashiell Hammett’s well-regarded novel. Instead, the credits say it’s based on “a novel” by Dashiell Hammett. Isn’t that oddly vague? Do you think they were a little sheepish over the changes they had made, the wreckage they had wrought?

In any event, the first of the problems is that Ted Shane is not just jolly, even in the face of his partner’s murder, but downright manic. This is the kind of guy who takes one woman out on a date and asks another to meet him, while in the presence of the first; he proceeds straight from the body of the man he partnered with back to a nightclub for more posh gaiety. Warren William, who plays him, was actually a well-respected actor, but his performance here is mannered, and the character he plays obnoxious beyond belief, to the point that he seems not just self-satisfied but a solipsism; he exists in his own head, with his own musical soundtrack, and his own close-ups, not giving a damn about anything else as long as he can have his fun from one second to the next. Hammett aside, a character like that can work; surely, Groucho Marx made it work. But it’s hard to forget that a man Shane knew died, and he should be taking it at least a little bit seriously. He certainly shouldn’t be doing what he does here, which includes, at one point, reacting to a gun in his face by grabbing a door frame and swinging from it like a monkey, while whooping like a clown.

Bette Davis, the most-remembered of the film’s stars, felt the same way, writing in her autobiography, “I was so distressed by the whole tone of the script and the vapidity of my part that I marched up to Mr. Warner’s office and demanded that I be given work that was commensurate with my proven ability.” She was suspended because of her attitude and resentfully returned to work three days later. She needn’t have worried. She did, eventually, receive more parts commensurate with her proven ability. But this film does not shine brightly in a career that continued to command memorable roles until she was a very old woman.

The most remarkable thing about her role in the film is that her character seems to recognize, throughout, just how insanely irritating Shane is, and indeed “wins,” in a sense, given that that the confrontation scene takes place on a train and she is able to evade him long enough to surrender herself to a maid in order to deny him the reward. This is a happy ending for her, I guess. It’s bad enough to go to prison for life, but if you have to go to prison for life and know that this putz profited from it, you might as well hang yourself in your cell.

In place of “Fat Man” Casper Gutman, Satan Met A Lady gives us a fat woman, Madame Barrabas (Alison Skipworth), who is here not a scheming art collector surrounded by a bunch of eccentrics and reprobates, but a kind of female super-villain, who Shane describes as well-known to detectives throughout the world. Golly. Shane’s mutually affectionate first conversation with her is really the only time, in the entire movie, that his flirting with every woman in eyesight is as charming as intended. Madame’s alleged worldwide notoriety, discussed at length while she’s petting a kitten, may be the origin of the film cliché that obliges so many evil masterminds to pet their felines while discussing their vile plans. Her version of the “gunsel” Wilmer, Kenneth (Maynard Holmes) is effeminate in a manner entirely different than the character played in 1931 by Dwight Frye and in 1941 by Elisha Cook Jr.; he’s deadly, but he’s also infantile, and is seen at one point cooing over the same cat, utterly lost in his communion with it. Shane abuses this loser by straddling him and pulling his beret down over his face.

The Joel Cairo analogue is an affected briton played by Arthur Treacher (yes, he of the fish and chips). He has a nice bit involving trying to help Shane straighten up his apartment after a thorough search has trashed it, and indeed represents the film’s finest moment as he delivers extended exposition while fussing, obsessively, over a lampshade.

Of course, it’s a sign of the film’s awfulness that this is a high point.

It also needs to be said that for the scene to work at all, Shane must be so incapable of taking anything at all seriously that he cannot express anger even after thugs have invaded his home and trashed all his belongings. The closest we come to feeling sympathy for him, at any point, is concurring with his frustration at just how long it takes Treacher to come to the point. Shane is in this movie, and he’s bored with it.

These are not improvements.

Incidentally, all three movies share the somewhat laughable device of the story’s major developments not only being reported in the newspaper, but displayed in banner headlines on the front page. However, this is the only one that gets around to suggesting that one previous victim of its priceless object’s long and bloody history was, I quote, “a vampire.” (There’s a logical explanation; back then, it was in addition to a word meaning supernatural bloodsucker also a word that could be applied to seductive women. Too bad. An actual  vampire could have only improved this mess.)
  
Bosley Crowther, the critic in residence at the New York Times, ultimately put it best when he wrote, “So disconnected and lunatic are the picture’s incidents, so irrelevant and monstrous its people, that one lives through it in constant expectation of seeing a group of uniformed individuals appear suddenly from behind the furniture and take the entire cast into protective custody.”  It was, not surprisingly, a bomb.

Five years passed.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

A screenwriter with no previous directing experience but with ambitions of moving into the boss’s chair got his first assignment, the go-ahead to make the third version of the story in only ten years.

He was so disrespected that the first major star he approached, George Raft, turned it down rather than work with such an untested kid.

He had to go with a guy then high on the B-list, Humphrey Bogart.

But John Huston was the one that finally got it right, the one that not only cemented entire careers but also initiated an entire genre, Film Noir.

Is it just, as legend has it, that his film was made by somebody who finally trusted the story?

No. As we’ve seen, the 1931 version also trusted the story, for the most part; and even the 1936 version followed much of its outline, and used much of its dialogue – admittedly, under a farrago of insane characterizations and clownish behavior, but still closely enough that Hammett’s story could be recognized.

Nor is it just that nebulous quantity, “star power.” To be sure, everybody in the film is perfectly cast, from Bogart as the cynical Spade to Elisha Cook Jr. as the put-upon but still dangerous Wilmer, but  great casts have made shitty movies before, even when trying hard. It may be that the most primal element here is simply understanding the story more. This is most true of the movie’s linchpin, Bogart. This Spade may be cold and dismissive of his late partner’s memory, reacting to a cop’s claim that the poor guy must have had some fine qualities with a bored “I guess”…and he may not wait until after the body’s cold to have the dead man’s name removed from his office door…but unlike the protagonists of the first two versions, he doesn’t actually laugh about it. He clearly knows it’s serious business, even if he’s not enough a hypocrite to pretend that he’s broken up about it.

It’s also worth noting that unlike Ricardo Cortez, who simply speaks his lines and seems to go dead until it’s time for him to emote again, Bogart does something many actors fail to do and listens; he thinks;  he pays attention to what’s going around him and shows moments of dismay, of fury, of wry amusement and even – in the final confrontation with Brigid – of despairing self-recognition, even when it’s not time for him to talk.

Bogart understands the character so well that when Spade comforts a sobbing Mrs. Archer with sweet talk and tells her to go home, it is possible to see not just dishonestly he’s manipulating her, and just how clearly he takes satisfaction in it, but also – behind all that – a thin taste of self-loathing at his own duplicity. All of this was inherent in the story, but it was up to an actor who could inhabit it, and not simply speak the lines, to give it a depth deeper than the surface. It’s the main reason I’d stake this performance against any number of complacent modern-day viewers who have told me, in recent years, that they loathe Bogart because he “couldn’t act” or, at best, “always played the same character;” it’s not true, and perhaps even more than Casablanca, this film is Exhibit A.

Similarly, Mary Astor’s Brigid is not just a liar, but to our eyes a bad liar, somebody Spade can clearly see through and simultaneously just as clearly be intrigued by. The storytelling is so clear that when I saw it for the first time, in a packed college auditorium almost forty years later, the cynical members of my audience laughed derisively at her lame dissembling – thinking it a dated aspect of the movie – and then cheered with delighted recognition when Spade, who was just as unfooled, told her, “You’re good.”

Contemporary censors were concerned about intimations of homosexuality regarding both Cairo and Wilmer (and, by implication, Gutman), enough to tell Huston to play it down. (Indeed, the introduction of the Production Code may be the reason the 1936 Cairo was not an obvious homosexual, but a British twit.) It really isn’t all that important a story element, even if Hammett valued it enough in his original novel to have Spade repeatedly call Wilmer a “gunsel,” which many readers took to mean gun-wielding thug but actually means a younger man kept by an older one. The memo Huston received from the studio advised him to take steps to make sure that Cairo wasn’t so obviously a (forgive me, it’s their word) “pansy.” But the element is still there in Lorre’s performance, and in Elisha Cook’s.

Cook, in particular (who actually shares his character’s last name), inhabits the part of a not-very-formidable punk who probably spent his entire childhood being kicked around, and made himself a killer in order to compensate, but is still preternaturally sensitive to any slight or insult.

There is similar great work from Lorre, of whom no praise is sufficient, and Sydney Greenstreet, who may have been the damnedest movie star of his era. Hell, it’s true of everybody. The cast has no weak links. Everybody understood the characters they were playing; nobody phoned it in.

Just as importantly, the film is brilliantly directed.

This is harder to see, mostly because John Huston’s hand is so unobtrusive. The camera moves more than we notice it does, pulling in to emphasize bits of business, panning to follow characters, finding humor in places like Spade’s disarming of Wilmer in the hotel corridor. It is also always positioned for the greatest possible effect. Nowhere does this present e clearer contrast than in the scene where the two homicide cops show up at Spade’s apartment door and ask to come in, at a moment when Spade would prefer to hide the presence of Brigid and Cairo, inside. In the 1931 version, Spade’s conversation with the cops is a medium shot, filmed from the corridor; it’s just three guys talking. In the 1941 version, it’s a much tighter shot filmed from over Spade’s shoulder, rendering vivid the sense that he’s a barrier preventing those hostile presences from coming in. He looks more threatened by them. And we feel him being more threatened by them.

This command of the film’s visual language extends to often filming the massive Greenstreet from a low angle, thus accentuating his bulk and making him seem more mountain than man. It extends to a mastery of black and white cinematography that slices the screen with shadows and stresses both the precariousness of Spade’s situation and the moral murkiness of the waters he must swim. It finally extends to the final shot, in which he watches Brigid in custody being shuttled down in his building’s elevator, and then, inexorably, takes the stairs to follow her. She’s heading for hell. So is he, only a little bit slower.

Are there flaws? Sure, there are flaws. Every time I see it, I wish that John Huston had resisted prefacing the action with that damned opening text crawl, explaining the history of the Maltese Falcon long before Gutman gets around to explicating it at greater length; it adds nothing, and in fact dilutes a key element of the mystery before we need it explained. (It’s a flaw shared with many science fiction films, that have similar text crawls telling us more than we really need to know up front, for fear that we won’t stick around long enough for the same information to arrive more naturally; see, for instance, Dark City.)  I also deeply wish that if we had to get that opening text, it had been composed by somebody who knew what the hell a comma was for and where not to put it in a sentence. I also think it distinctly odd that Spade can lift Cairo’s handkerchief to his nose and discern the precise scent, without ever taking the cigarette out of his mouth. But, you know? That’s about it. Everything else is as close to magic as movies ever get.

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

1931 version, a well-meaning but largely flat adaptation. 1936 version, a jaw-dropping travesty. 1941 version, one of the greatest movies ever made, and clear rebuttal to the argument that remakes always suck.

*

And now, the wife stumbles into the office, carrying a tightly-wrapped bundle from Hong Kong…

Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Maltese Falcon aka Dangerous Female (1931). Directed by Roy del Ruth. Written by Maude Fulton and Brown Holmes, based on the novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Starring Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels. 80 minutes. *

Satan Met A Lady (1936). Directed by William Dieterle. Screenplay by Henry Blanke, based on “a novel”(note formulation) by Dashiell Hammett. Starring Bette Davis and Warren William. 74 minutes. *

The Maltese Falcon (1941). Directed by John Huston. Screenplay by John Huston, based on the novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet. 101 minutes. ****

Let me begin by saying I have never read anything by Dashiell Hammett.  Not that I haven’t wanted to, just one of those cases where the stuff just ain’t on the top of my must-read pile.

That said, the 1941 Bogie Maltese Falcon is one of my top 25 films of all time. (Someday I’ll share my full list, but for now content yourselves with knowing that Bogie reappears on the best list more times than any other actor including Spencer Tracy).

So, as we discussed this essay, I was kinda excited to get to see how this classic had been interpreted by two earlier film teams.  

Boyyyy!!!   Oyyyy!    Was I ever sorry.

The first try was a valiant attempt to interpret a pretty murky story.  Nothing horrible for the most part, just no umph, no feeling that anyone involved actually got it.  And sin of all sins!!!!!! They had to go for a softer, gentler ending.  Not altogether happy, but definitely counter to the character development up to that point. So , they blew try numero uno.

Then, some brainiac said, lets make a screwball comedy out of this property.  Ummm… drink much, mister studio guy?    Even I know, a great hardline detective story would be robbed of its power if you lighten it up.  No amount of star power(Bette Davis) could save this shipwreck of a film.  The idea of a comedy is to be funny.  Ok, I get that.  screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby, His Gal Friday, I get screwball comedy, just not in Satan Met A Lady.  If by screwball or comedy they meant the detective’s so called antics, then these folks needed to be tied to a chair and made to watch some silent classics of comedy for the stunts and early patter for the script.  Geesh guys,  how wrong can ya go?!

Then, out of options, the real film got made.  No one believed in the cast, director or script, so it was the perfect chance to get it right.  Woo Hoo!!!!  This classic fits the title of classic film noir.  Lighting, staging, camera work  all done to perfection.  The characters acted with restraint and still very much living breathing souls.  No happy clean up, no guy gets girl, no money from heaven…just a tight tale of greed and manipulation in the big city.  Wow!  I can’t see it enough.

So, am I a bit biased in my review. Probably.  Do I care?  Not a whit!  I just say for your own sanity.  Don’t be a completist in this case, just be happy with the 1941 version of this great tale and let the others drop back into the vaults of obscurity forever, never to be missed.


Doing everything exactly the same, and still getting it all wrong

Can you imagine any movie trailer like this, today?

 

Newcomers were led to expect a fast-paced roller-coaster ride of shocks. Sorry.

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Psycho (1960). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, and Vera Miles. 109 minutes. ****

Psycho (1998). Directed by Gus van Sant. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, and Julianne Moore. 109 minutes. *

Other Affiliated Films: Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986), Psycho IV: The Beginning (TV-movie, 1990), all starring Anthony Perkins; A Conversation with Norman (2005). There is reportedly a making-of-Psycho dramatic film also in the pipeline, but who knows if it will ever be completed?

*

Your name is Marion Crane. You’re a good girl aching for domestic bliss with your lover, a man from another town who returns your affections but is financially unable to commit. He tells you that until he can pay his father’s debts you will have to be content with stolen moments, the occasional hour of passion in a motel room, and the promise of a better tomorrow. You cannot wait. But then a boor doing business with your employer flashes a wad of cash, you are entrusted with the task of getting it to the bank…and you succumb to a moment’s mad temptation. You take the money, pack a passport, and hit the highway, hoping to talk your man into escaping the country with you. It’s a desperate and poorly-thought out plan, one that begins to fall apart even before you make it out of town. But your temporary madness is nothing compared to the greater madness that awaits you, in a small out-of-the-way motel with no guests and a desk clerk who seems as vulnerable, and as trapped, as yourself. It is where you will meet your annihilation…because this story was never really about about you. The story’s about the sad, lonely, and stammering little desk clerk, who harbors a madness dangerous to any who cross his path.

The original film Psycho is often given the directorial possessive, and listed as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, as if he was solely responsible for creating Norman Bates and structuring the plot. Entire forests have been cut down to print the articles and books crediting him with the genius required to get audiences invested in the fate of Marion Crane, and then to have her brutally murdered in a shower only one-third of the way through the story, changing the direction of the tale completely. It honestly isn’t so. The story wasn’t ushered into being by Hitchcock, but by one Robert Bloch, a veteran writer of pulp thrillers whose career included Lovecraftian fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, Star Trek episodes, a couple of the best stories ever written about Jack the Ripper, recognition as a grandmaster of both science fiction and horror, and a declaration frequently misattributed to Stephen King (who had provided attribution to Bloch when he said it), that he had the heart of a small boy…pickled in a jar on his desk.

It was Bloch who read of the gruesome murders committed by a Wisconsin loner named Ed Gein, speculated on just what kind of madness might have driven that strange man to furnish his home with such art objects as an armchair constructed of real arms, and applied his rich imagination to the creation of one Norman Bates, an affable homebody deadly only to those who cross his path. It was Bloch who was contacted by Hitchcock’s representatives, and not told just who had taken an interest in his story…Bloch who was paid a few hundred dollars for the story that he would soon see hailed worldwide as the manifestation of another creator’s genius.

Nor was this hogging of credit entirely Hitchcock’s sin. Screenwriter Joseph Stefano’s contribution to the original film was superb, but when discussing the film in interviews during his later years he would go on at length about the train of thought that led him to make certain story decisions, as if he and not Bloch had been the one to originally decide that Marion Crane would steal the money and meet her fate in that shower. Trust us, folks; Stefano and Hitchcock and the various actors all contributed to the splendid collaborative stew that is the 1960 Psycho, but as far as the grand outline of the story was concerned, they “decided” little. Again, it was Bloch who had his seeming protagonist, one Mary Crane, steal that money; it was Bloch who had her stop at the Bates Motel and befriend its pathetic proprietor; it was Bloch who had her lose her life in the shower; it was Bloch who arranged everything that happened with her sister, and Sam Loomis, and “Mrs. Bates” after that. Against pretty much the entire body of literature that’s been written about the movie in all the years since, Stefano and Hitchcock were interpreters: interpreters deft enough to qualify as artists, but still interpreters…and Bloch was swindled not out of the full payday he deserved, but also of the wider popular recognition he merited for his pivotal role in the creation of Norman Bates.

Which is not to deny the stamp that Stefano and Hitchcock put on the material. Bloch’s shower scene is very minimal, and ends almost as soon as Marion Crane realizes that she’s being attacked. The shock moment consists of two sentences, which I here paraphrase from memory: “The knife came down, cutting off her scream.” Paragraph break. “And her head.” I’m sorry to say, that’s pretty much it.  From that, Stefano and Hitchcock crafted one of the most indelible scenes in motion picture history.

Once, this was the most shocking movie moment anyone had ever seen.

Don’t feel too sorry for Bloch, as he enjoyed a long and productive and reportedly happy life, and did indeed profit from Psycho,  if not from the movie’s earnings then in increased book sales for the rest of his career.  It doesn’t mean Hitchcock behaved well in obtaining the rights, or in minimizing Bloch’s contribution afterward. As epilogue we note only that when Gus van Sant announced the plans for a shot-by-shot remake, there was no thought of rewarding Bloch’s estate with any additional payment…until a public outcry, way beyond the usual level of popular concern for what a writer might be owed, forced the backers to begrudgingly open their pocketbooks. Every once in a while, justice prevails. Or somewhat prevails. Given the millions the studios made from Psycho and its film sequels, Bloch still deserved more.

van Sant’s 1998 remake was ballyhooed as a thought experiment, dedicated to finding out whether a new version using the 1960 screenplay, as well as the 1960 Bernard Herrmann score, and the 1960 set design, that matched the Hitchcock version shot by shot, would have the same impact. Or at least, that was the rationalization, the one that may have motivated him as he pointed his camera. The motivation of the money men was more crass. By that time, we had a new generation of filmgoers with little respect for the past, who despite an unprecedented wealth of home-video opportunities open to them had nothing but revulsion for anything made before they were born…especially if it was in black and white.  And yet Norman Bates himself remained a familiar, marketable name, one that had driven a number of inferior but financially successful sequels, not to mention attractions in theme parks where macabre film-lovers could, among other things, buy Bates Motel towels and shower curtains imprinted with the murderous silhouette of Norman in the guise of his mother. A new color version that hit all the same beats as the original was, they thought, just the right thing to revive the brand.

It wasn’t. I saw it during its theatrical release out of sheer perverse curiosity, not expecting much, and was stunned by the hostility it received from a large audience that went in expecting to see their idea of a horror movie, and was bored beyond endurance by this lame, slow-ass story where the killings were few and far between and reprehensibly bloodless by the standards they had come to expect. Though van Sant has claimed that it eventually broke even, it is remembered as a bomb and has largely disappeared except as a cautionary tale. It is certainly almost never seen on television, whereas Psycho 1960 still plays in revival houses and pops up regularly on all the classic-oriented movie channels, to be cooed over by hosts and enjoyed anew by viewers who recognize it as a still very much living relic.

But the question remains. Why doesn’t the remake work?

Smallest Problem: The Tin-Eared Updating From 1960 to 1998

For the most part the updating manifests as how much things cost. Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane steals $40,000;  Anne Heche’s steals $400,000. There are similar adjustments to the price of a used car and the cost of a cheap, no-name motel room. That’s reasonable.

Other updates are just tin-eared, like Julianne Moore’s Lila Crane declaring, “Let me get my Walkman,” before accompanying Sam Loomis to ask the local sheriff some pointed questions. (Yes, when your sister’s vanished into thin air following the theft of a large amount of money, and you don’t know whether she’s alive or dead, your first thought should be having some tunes to bring along.) 

One of the minor plot points that remains intact is Marion’s boss at the real-estate firm (Rance Howard) telling his client to join him in his own office, the only room which happens to be air-conditioned. In 1960, it was reasonable and believable for a real estate office in downtown Phoenix, of all places, to reserve air-conditioning for the boss, and force the rest of the firm’s employees to sit in the general reception area and sweat. The lack of air conditioning was after all a key requirement of a great movie Hitchcock had made only a few years earlier, Rear Window. In 1998, air conditioning was far more ubiquitous. The girls in the front room, not to mention the drop-in customers waiting to be helped, would have not only expected but demanded it. (I suspect that matters will change back in the coming decades.) Again, this is a small point. But since it doesn’t really affect the flow of the story one way or the other, why not omit the line or adjust it in some way?

At least one other change that assaults the ear has to do with an entire word leaving the popular vocabulary: in the original film, the dogged private detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam) tells the evasive Norman, ”Well, if it doesn’t jell, it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jellin’.” As was also pointed out in the recent film Julie and Julia, people don’t really eat aspic anymore and for the most part have no idea what the word means. So the remake’s Arbogast (William H. Macy) says, “If it doesn’t jell, it isn’t jello.” Which may be more current, but still lands with a thud. The solution may have been to just use the “aspic” line as is, accept that it’s a bit odd to the modern ear, and let its essential meaning come across through context; either that, or drop it completely.

What may be more serious is the second film’s Arbogast dressed in a snappy blue suit with matching hat that together look positively antiquarian to the modern eye, telling Lila that he could trail her undetected because it’s his job to avoid being seen; a plot point that makes sense in the original film when Arbogast is an average-looking guy who dresses like everyone else and makes less sense in the remake when, in context, he looks like an escapee from an old-time movie. In truth, Lila should respond, “You haven’t been unnoticed, mister. I’ve been noticing your  hat everywhere I went all day.”

Nor is that the only generational fashion faux-pas. When the second film’s Marion Crane gets out of her car and unfurls a pink parasol to protect her from the Arizona sun, my audience audibly snorted.

Larger Problem: The Terrible Miscasting of Norman Bates

One of the biggest changes between the original novel and the first film was the physical look of Norman Bates. Bloch’s Bates was a pudgy little man in the first throes of middle age, obvious to Mary Crane’s eyes as a guy who had been so dominated by the mother over the years that he’d never had a life of his own. It was believable that she felt sorry for him and saw him as no threat. Faithful adherence to Bloch’s description would have resulted in the casting of Rod Steiger, or maybe even Ernest Borgnine. Today, it might have been Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Stefano and Hitchcock decided to go another way. They decided it was critical for their audience to like Norman Bates and feel empathy for him. So they cast a slight, boyish young actor named Anthony Perkins, who had played young leading-man roles as, among other things, the young town sheriff opposite Henry Fonda in The Tin Star. As Bates, Perkins projected a loneliness and a vulnerability that rendered Marion Crane’s immediate compassion for him entirely believable. It made sense for this young woman, on her own with 40,000 reasons to be afraid, to agree to join this total stranger in his parlor, to listen to him and to feel for him, and to see in his tale of a life trapped with a deranged mother not a potential danger that would lead her to get back in her car and drive away as fast as possible, but an object lesson in the trap she’s made for herself and a reason to return home to face the consequences of her actions. It made sense, all in all, for her to like Norman, even when she suggests institutionalization for his mother and gets a flash of anger in return. Who wouldn’t like that Norman? Watching the scene, it’s even possible to believe that had she left the motel alive, returned to Phoenix with the stolen money, avoided serious legal consequences  and then come back to town to settle down with Sam Loomis, she would have sought out Norman again, this time as a concerned friend, and tried to help him.

All of this was central to the impact of the story as intended. Marion’s subsequent murder in the shower really does come off as a shocking twist, even if it’s already been spoiled for us by reputation or previous viewings. And Norman’s subsequent horrified reaction and desperate efforts to clean up after the killing do come off as the trapped actions of a man trying to protect his homicidal mother. It even comes off this way if you go in already knowing that Norman pretty much is his mother. His horror feels genuine.

You know who would have been able to project the same qualities while making the performance his own? Ed Norton.

Instead, van Sant went with Vince Vaughn, a big guy far broader and more imposing than Anthony Perkins, who looks even more massive when photographed alongside his film’s Marion Crane, the petite Anne Heche. He is able to manage a goofy, frat-boy affability during their initial meeting, but after that, when he presses Crane to join him for dinner and later discusses his sad circumstances with her, the likeability goes away and all that’s left is a seething, oversized man-child whose eyes go cold and distant when he talks about his mother.

Yeah. I can totally dig Marion being willing to share a roof with this guy.

It is difficult to tell whether this more sinister characterization of Norman is a poor acting choice by Vaughn or a directorial decision on the part of van Sant, reflecting the inescapable fact that most of the people who saw this movie would enter the theatre already aware that Norman Bates kills people. But it’s fatal to the scene and a serious blow to the movie. An ominous Norman Bates makes Marion Crane look like an idiot. In 1960, when Janet Leigh tells Anthony Perkins that she can’t have breakfast with him the next morning because she needs to get an early start, it’s an attractive woman being kind to a stranger who doesn’t get to speak to many attractive women, and who she can tell already harbors a substantial crush on her. In 1998, when Anne Heche has the same conversation with Vince Vaughn, it’s a tiny woman who has become profoundly creeped out by the big hulking man…and who out of incomprehensible recklessness doesn’t change her plans to spend the night in his hotel. Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane honestly doesn’t think she has reason to fear. Anne Heche’s Marion Crane is rendered nervous, but remains in a room next to the office of the scary hulking man with the master key. It’s a spike through the very heart of the story, harming everything that follows.

And it’s not the only one.

Stranger Problem: Changes Crass, Repulsive and Nonsensical

van Sant’s mission statement of directing a line by line, shot by shot remake to the contrary, the changes he made to his Psycho are not only obvious, but gross.

Some are understandable. For instance, he extends the climax slightly. When Lila Crane finds the mummified corpse of Norman’s mother and Norman rushes in wearing wig and housedress to murder her, Van Sant’s Sam Loomis (Viggo Mortenson) needs to struggle with him a little bit more in order to subdue him.

This makes perfect logical sense in that this film’s Norman Bates is a bigger guy, larger in fact than this film’s Loomis.

And it also makes commercial sense in that the generations of thrillers since the original Psycho have trained  audiences to expect more substantial action climaxes than the mere moment or two Hitchcock provided in the original. (It still wasn’t enough, as per the reaction of the theatrical audience I saw it with, when they realized that the struggle was already over…but it could have been worse; van Sant could have gone whole hog and constructed a climax more in tune with the new era’s sensibilities, complete with an extended battle in a burning house and a bad guy who kept coming to life after being presumed dead.)

Some of the other changes are unfortunate, but forgivable. The original shower scene is justifiably famous for implying extreme violence while never actually showing the knife touch Marion’s flesh. This film’s version duplicates it almost shot by shot (the exception being a few inexplicable inserts of rolling clouds), but makes sure that we see the gaping wounds in Marion’s back as she collapses over the rim of the tub.

Some are repulsive and unnecessary. It was creepy enough, in the original film, when Norman Bates peered through the hole in the wall and spied on Marion in her room. We didn’t really need to see him hyperventilating or hear the vivid moist sounds of masturbation…in part because it’s vulgar, and in part because it prematurely erases any sympathy we might feel for the man. (This is by far van Sant’s most irritating move.)

And finally, some are nonsensical.

This scene is also known as WTF: THE MOTION PICTURE.

What on Earth was van Sant thinking, when he added a random shot of a cow on a highway, and another of a blindfolded woman reclining on a bed, to Arbogast’s murder on the stairway? What did he think this communicated, other than random film-school absurdity?

The Fatal Problem: We already know who Norman Bates is 

Scroll back up and watch the trailer for the remake again. Does it hide Norman’s nature, or trumpet it? Is this now a story driven by an unexpected twist at the one-third mark and shocking one at the conclusion, or by the dreary inevitability of an icon behaving exactly as we expect him to behave?

The 1960 Psycho was not born already imbedded in amber. It was paced for its time, driven by twists unexpected at the time, and appreciated as something new by the audiences of the time. Though now devoid of surprises, it can still be appreciated for the better mousetrap that it is. By contrast, the 1998 version was for audiences who could never be fooled into thinking that the movie was about Marion Crane’s theft, or a fundamentally innocent man trying to hide the crimes of a deranged mother. Remade beat for beat for people who know going in that Norman Bates was a crazy murderer, but too interested in paying obeisance to that original to offer them anything but strict adherence to that blueprint, it completely failed to achieve audience identification with either the main victim Marion or the just as sympathetic killer Norman. It played the notes but did not make the music. It’s no wonder that modern audiences, expecting a modern horror film, sighed with exasperation at the dullness of everything they saw on screen. van Sant did not have to emulate the murder-every-fifteen-minutes pacing of Friday the 13th with his Norman Bates, but what he made was as lifeless, really, as Norman’s mother, moldering in her rocking chair in the basement.

It might have been possible to remake Psycho in a manner that incorporated its main secret as already common knowledge. In fact, it’s been done, in a way. Starting in 1983, Anthony Perkins made a series of sequels that began with Norman Bates released from the mental hospital as “cured,” and went on to elicit thrills over uncertainty over just how unstable he really was. They weren’t great films – in fact, they were largely derided by critics – but they were all far more entertaining than van Sant’s distorted carbon copy remake. I liked Psycho II, in particular,  quite a bit, for presenting us with a story where Norman really is trying to atone for the insane crimes of his past despite Marion’s vengeful relatives  trying to drive him back to a state of madness. It was easy to feel sorry for Norman, in that movie. There was nothing in van Sant’s subsequent straight remake that matched the sheer geeky wit of that endearing moment in Psycho II when Norman Bates, desperately struggling to behave better now, declines to slice a female guest’s sandwich, telling her, “I have a problem with c-c-cutlery.” Anthony Perkins acts the hell out of that moment.

Norman does ultimately return to killing, of course. And he is returned to the asylum at the end of Psycho III. But I always took deep satisfaction in the final moment of the final sequel, Psycho IV: The Beginning, a made-for-TV movie – also written by Stefano — about the events that twisted him in the first place, where the Norman Bates of the framing sequence, mysteriously paroled from the asylum again, ultimately seems cured for good and ready for an unlikely but still gratifying happy ending that includes marriage to a loving young woman and the implied birth of his child. This redemption made almost no psychological or real-world sense, but I liked Norman enough to embrace it. I’m a wuss that way.

For what it’s worth, Robert Bloch’s own version of Norman’s aftermath, the novel Psycho II, was quite different. It’s all about a series of murders that follows Norman’s escape from the asylum. Norman, who is off-stage after the first couple of chapters, seems the obvious culprit, but the book ends with the revelation that he died soon after going over the wall, and that almost all of the recent killings attributed to him were committed by another character entirely. It’s an interesting use of a legendary monster as mere red herring, but feels like a betrayal. Ambivalent as Bloch may have been about his signature creation, Norman Bates really did deserve better than that.

In any event, van Sant received more than his share of abuse by people who called him a talentless hack for his stunt, but let us be honest about this much. He tried something that failed. That’s all. And he has more than earned his way out of purgatory with some of  the work he’s done since then, including the splendid biopic Milk.

As for the man who really started all this, crazy old murderous Ed Gein: he continued to have a tremendous impact on the world of motion pictures, as his crimes also separately inspired The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Buffalo Bill from Silence Of the Lambs.

*

And now, the wife’s ominous silhouette comes into view behind the shower curtain…!

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Psycho (1960). Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins, John Gavin, Martin Balsam, and Vera Miles. 109 minutes. ****

Psycho (1998). Directed by Gus van Sant. Screenplay by Joseph Stefano, from the novel by Robert Bloch. Starring Anne Heche, Vince Vaughn, Viggo Mortensen, William H. Macy, and Julianne Moore. 109 minutes.

Other Affiliated Films: Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986), Psycho IV: The Beginning (TV-movie, 1990), all starring Anthony Perkins; A Conversation with Norman (2005). There is reportedly a making-of-Psycho dramatic film also in the pipeline, but who knows if it will ever be completed?

Thank you so much, my loving hubby.

Who decided that Psycho needed to be remade?

Was this one of those late night drunk then wake up in the morning kinda What have I done deals?

It had to be for the remake to so totally miss the mark.

OK, An updating is never a totally bad idea, but you gotta go all in or fold the hand (too many hours playing online poker).  The folks here knew they couldn’t best the original, so they decided to copy and tweak it.  Fine, but again come on and play like ya mean it.  Everything is mixed between 50’s and 90’s .  The dresses look like someone went to a 60’s vintage shop and said give me the ugliest ya got plus the accessories.  And every PI tries to blend in by wearing the Ward Cleaver off to work look.  I mean they are going from a sweltering city to an unused motel and nobody seems to feel that shorts and a t shirt might fit a bit better?  And, besides some older ladies and a few younger Latinos, I have yet to see a parasol in regular sun use. And I live in the Sunshine state.

The big surprises in the course of Psycho worked back then because they were surprising.  Now, the shower/murder scene comes across as toothless as a defanged vampire.  All bloody and wet, but not very scary. And lets face it, Vince Vaughn doesn’t look like he’d have any problem lifting away Anne Heche’s remains. I mean at least the movie goer had a reasonable doubt whether Tony Perkins could actually manhandle Janet Leigh’s body ( and I mean that in the nicest way possible guys).

Oh, AND ONE MORE THING, who the hell decided that the Daliesque images enhanced the fall down the stairs?  Talk about throwing the scene out of whack.  Is it supposed to be his memories or just some random last thoughts?  HUH?!?!  I just didn’t get it.  Did anyone?

Alright, So two guys walk into a bar and one guy says Hey, I’ve got a few million lying around, lets make a movie.  The other guy says sure and they begin to drink.  That’s the joke and the punch line was this remake.