Feature: A Movie Through Its Posters — Psycho

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Psycho is one of those movies that is known worldwide and still revered as a great piece of horror history. In no way is that more evident than by the sheer extent of foreign movie posters for the flick.

Hitchcock was the “master of suspense” but his movies did not really fall into the horror category before Psycho. The movie was controversial and met with a lot of pushback from the Hayes Office but Hitchcock managed to make compromises –giving up one scandalous aspect to allow another to stay in. The movie nevertheless is well known for Janet Leigh‘s undergarment outfits at separate instances in the film’s start. This part of the film certainly did not escape notice to those individuals who create movie posters worldwide. Six of the posters above feature the scantily clad Leigh, which probably proved a selling point for the flick.

Also prominent in the posters is the horror-stricken face of Anthony Perkins upon discovering a body in his hotel’s bathroom. The lead-up scene also was a source of controversy with the short takes assembled to give the impression we are seeing nudity. Including Perkins on the posters in this manner certainly would have lulled the audience into believing his character’s innocence, fueling one of the movie’s twists.

My favorite of these posters is the German one. It is simple and striking with its bold teal color and large Perkins facade. I love that shot of Perkins, and I think this poster uses it to its greatest effect. Which do you like best?

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

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Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941)

Alfred Hitchcock is most popularly known today as the “master of suspense”, and rightfully so. Most people remember him for the drama of his thrillers and some find his pictures terrifying. What is perhaps ignored by the average viewer, however, is the man’s astute sense of humor.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith was the only movie Hitchcock made in America that was strictly a comedy with no suspense whatever. This was not his only venture into the genre, however, as many of his early English films were suspense-free. In all Hitchcock flicks, however, the viewer can find evidence of “Hitchcockian humor”, many times slipped in under the nose of the Hayes Office. Much of the master’s humor related to sexual innuendo, and the director was constantly pushing the envelope to see what he could get away with under the Production Code. Mr. and Mrs. Smith is one movie that is all about what consists of proper behavior for an unmarried couple, even if they’ve been married before.

Perfectly paired are Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard as Ann and David Smith. The flick opens with the servants wondering what is going on in the couple’s bedroom, where they have been holed up for three days. The duo has a policy of never leaving their bedroom until an argument has been resolved, David’s job as a lawyer be damned. We come in just in time to see the couple rekindle their affection, but over breakfast, Ann insists on another of their traditions: asking a question to which David must give a totally honest answer. The question is: If you could do it over again, would you marry me. The answer: no.

This answer becomes particularly important when later that day David learns that his marriage to Ann is not legal because of a mix up with the way the county and state in which they were married provided the paperwork. The man who delivers the news, Mr. Deever (Charles Halton), knew Ann when she was a girl and so drops by the home to give her the information. Ann is convinced David will marry her right away, but in trying to make a big surprise of the situation, he does not. That leads to Ann furiously throwing her non-husband out of their apartment and returning to her maiden name and life.

The remainder of the story involves David fighting to get Ann back while each tries to make the other jealous. Ann does this by dating David’s law practice partner (Gene Raymond). Both are too stubborn and too conniving to relinquish control until finally their games land each in the other’s arms.

The fun in Mr. and Mrs. Smith is not just the almost screwball-style of acting our stars bring to the screen –I’ll get to that momentarily– but the moral questions it raises. Hitchcock loved to create circumstances in his movies when an unmarried couple find themselves forced to share a bedroom (see The 39 Steps and Spellbound). In this case the viewer cannot help but wonder about just how wrong it was that the two have been sharing a bed for three years and whether they can continue to do so without redoing their vows. This movie could obviously never be made today and make any sort of sense.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is pure gold for me. With my two favorite actors in the lead paired with my favorite director, the movie cannot go wrong. Lombard is as zany as she is in My Man Godfrey, although, her character is more on the sane side in this case. Montgomery really brings out his comedic side as well, both in dialogue and physically. The lines are so well written with such subtle humor and innuendo that the more you pay attention the funnier the movie is. I could watch it everyday.

Camille (1937)

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Camille (1937)

     The 1937 release of Camille did not give audiences a new story. The romance originated as an Alexandre Dumas novel that became a Paris play in 1848, the Verdi opera La Traviata, a 1907 Danish short film La Dame aux Camlias, a 1915 Shubert production, a 1917 Fox film, and a 1927 First National production, among many others. What the other adaptations did not have, however, was Greta Garbo.

     Although the past productions also featured some great actresses in the lead role, for audiences in the 1930s, there was no better-suited star than Garbo. She plays Marguerite Gautier –the lady of the camellias because of her love of the flower– who in this film’s case is a society lady whose lifestyle is paid for by the generosity of male suitors. With her debt on the rise, Marguerite is advised by a friend, Prudence Duvernoy (Laura Hope Crews), to find a wealthy suitor. The mark is the Baron de Varville (Henry Daniell), but a case of mistaken identity at the theatre lands Marguerite in acquaintance with long-time admirer Armand Duval (Robert Taylor).

     Although Marguerite carries on a relationship with the Baron, and he keeps her financially sound, she finds herself all at once in love with Armand when the two are alone at a party. She has also been hearing that this man over the years has always been ever attentive when she would fall under one of her illness spells, likely the result of tuberculosis. After some time and growing affection, Marguerite agrees to break off her relationship with the baron in order to spend a summer in the country with Armand, something that would perhaps mend her health. Before she can leave town, however, she must pay off $40,000 francs worth of debt, something no match for Armand’s $7,000 per year salary. The baron foots the bill just before declaring he would never see Marguerite again.

     The couple have a marvelous time in the country despite the discovery that the baron’s mansion is just a hill away. While there, however, Armand’s father (Lionel Barrymore) stops by to beg Marguerite to back off. He says the relationship will ruin the young man’s future success and could bring a certain amount of shame upon him. Marguerite, despite knowing that her health is unlikely to keep her around for many more years, coldly breaks her relationship with Armand and says she is returning to the nearby baron. The couple will reunite, but not under happy circumstances.

     I cannot help but ponder why the story of Camille has time and time again produced movies –as recently as the 2001 Moulin Rouge. The story is that of a love triangle but not one in which the object of the dual affection is emotionally torn between two individuals. Instead, she must weigh passion against her financial needs, needs that have been ever-present in her past up until the introduction of true love. Other incarnations of Camille have painted the woman as a courtesan, and although the Garbo version does not depict her that way ala Production Code restrictions, there is no denying her source of income. So the story also involves a love so strong that it ignores the woman’s seedy past.

     Perhaps the plot is appealing to viewers because the romantic choice is obvious; we will always root for love over money. Yet regardless of the decision, the woman will still meet a fate that neither love nor money could have prevented.

     Garbo and Taylor embody all that the story demands of impassioned love. Although Garbo’s performances can be cold at times, she is convincing in her emotional connection with Taylor, who meanwhile is exhibiting the endearingly obsessive love that seems to exist only in films and classic literature. The couple does the story justice and create a good entre for anyone who has yet to be exposed to the classic romance.

Picture Snatcher

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Picture Snatcher (1933)

     In an era of tough guy, gangster James Cagney characters, the actor took a reprieve from his criminal work that became a signature for Warner Bros. during the 1930s and played a legitimate working man in Picture Snatcher, at least partially.

     Cagney manages to live a life only a stone’s throw away from the hoodlum audiences knew him as when playing Danny Kean (although WB would also release Footlight Parade this same year that showed off Cagney’s song and dance background). At the film’s opening, Danny is released from prison, picked up by his gangster pals, offered a woman, fitted for new duds, and given his “salary” for the three years he spent “in stir”. Danny no longer desires to live the criminal life, however, and tells his boys he will be taking a job as a reporter, having been offered a position by a gent while in prison.

     Ralph Bellamy is that gracious fellow, city editor of the Graphic News Mr. McClean. The paper is considered a gossip rag and poorly regarded, and McClean is not sure the ex-con is cut out for the work, but gives him a chance on a tough assignment. No photographer has been able to get a picture of a firefighter whose wife and her lover burned to death in their home while he was out. Danny, unafraid of the gun the rescue worker is pointing at reporters, sneaks into the building and poses as an insurance claims adjuster. He manages to snatch a photo of the couple off the wall and make a clean getaway. Danny now has the job and is earning an ever-increasing salary as he proves capable of getting photos others cannot. He is also courting Patricia Nolan (Patricia Ellis) who is the daughter of the copper who put Danny in prison to begin with. Once proving himself on the level and managing to get the man promoted through positive press, Officer Nolan (Robert E. O’Connor) permits the relationship.

     Danny is preparing to propose to Patricia once he earns a decent enough salary and he thinks he has the assignment to do it: He must photograph the execution of a woman. Although the Graphic News has not been invited to the execution, Danny gets himself in anyway and snaps a shot from a camera hidden at his ankle. The other reporters find out, however, and a chase to stop print of the insensitive material is underway by both police and reporters –who do not want their prison news privileges revoked. The incident also risks Officer Nolan’s demotion because he was in charge of reporters at the event. Later, Danny tries to redeem himself by tracking down his former criminal crony who has shot two police officers.

     I found Picture Snatcher to be quite riveting. Although he’s gone legit, Cagney’s character still has the rough edges of a criminal as he gruffly maneuvers through the sleazy subjects his paper covers. Cagney also follows up on the grapefruit-in-the-face incident in 1931′s The Public Enemy by smacking/pushing a sexually aggressive dame in the face, knocking her into a chair. Later he dumps a brandy down a woman’s plunging neckline.

     The movie is flush with sexually aggressive females. A fellow reporter makes eyes at Danny from their first encounter and despite being involved with McClean, very strongly smooches a reclining Danny while the man physically struggle to remove her. Another woman who was angling to get with Danny on his release from prison talks much about going to bed, so Danny eventually scoops her up, puts her on the bed and locks her in her room. For a moment there, we are all convinced the protagonist will go to bed with the gal for the cause. These are clearly pre-Production Code aspects of the film that would never have flown in the coming years.

Lady in Cement

Dullsville

Lady in Cement (1968)

     Welcome to post-Production Code cinema, Frank Sinatra, where nudity, violence, homosexuals and strippers abound. That is essentially what I though when watching 1968′s Lady in Cement in which Sinatra as a private eye gets to search for the killer of a naked woman he found at the bottom of the ocean, her feet in cement. He trolls through a bar run by a gay man where scantily clad but mostly dressed women shake their stuff, meets up with an undercover detective dressed in drag at an actual strip show, and gets to make out with a woman far too young for him.

     The movie was released to New York audiences a mere 20 days after the new Motion Picture Association of America rating system was instituted on Nov. 1, 1968, but the Production Code the new ratings replaced had essentially crumbled by that point with many films being released without the MPAA seal of approval before that year.

     Sinatra playing Tony Rome follows up on 1967′s flick Tony Rome in which he plays the same character investigating the murder of a wealthy girl. In Lady in Cement he works with the help of a police detective to unravel a complex mystery in which the murders pile up. Rome is summoned to the boat house of a young woman where he is instead greeted by a large man with a gun –Gronsky (Dan Blocker)– who hires him to seek out a missing blonde who might be the same dame as the dead one in the water. Going to the gal’s place of work –that go-go dancing joint– Rome meets the girl’s roommate Maria (Lainie Kazan) who herself next ends up dead with Gronsky seen fleeing the scene.

    The information Rome does have points to a party held at the home of a young, wealthy socialite Kit Forrest, played by Raquel Welch in all her bathing-suited glory. Kit says she was too drunk to remember what happened at the party — the place the blonde was last seen. Her neighbor, gangster Al Munger (Martin Gabel), also warns Rome to stay away, but Rome has the hots for Kit, so that won’t be happening. The owner of the go-go joint is the next body on the pile and Rome is looking like the murderer. Fleeing from his police buddy he eventually lands at Kit’s and she reveals that she woke from a drunken stupor with the original girl’s body on her floor. Rome smells a frame up, however, and keeps digging.

     Sinatra was 53 when Lady in Cement was released and he was looking his age. I am the last person to denounce the Sinatra allure, but no longer the dashing young thing he used to be, he plays a mature detective well but teeters on the edge of sex appeal. Exacerbating his age, however, is 28-year-old Welch who is utterly unbelievable in her attraction to Rome. Granted, Sinatra had just divorced this same year from 23-year-old Mia Farrow, but I think we all are confused about why the 30-year difference there did not stop their union (she was three years older than Sinatra’s youngest child).

      Besides our lead male and female, the cast is essentially unnotable. No one gives a particularly stunning performance, and although the mystery is plenty complex, it is not superbly executed. Several inside jokes are contained within the movie, however. A car with a bumper advertisement for  Dean Martin Restaurant & Lounge is seen, a “You Make Me Feel So Young” instrumental is played in one scene, and Sinatra’s ex-wife Ava Gardner is alluded to when Rome mentions knowing a girl who used to date bullfighters.

The Secret Six

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The Secret Six (1931)

     Gobs of movies during what we consider the classic eras had titles that had little or nothing to do with the plot of the film. Many took their names from popular songs of the day and others went through numerous changes before a title that suited the studio was selected. With The Secret Six the name is nearly irrelevant. The title refers to a body of men who wear masks (and pretty lame ones) and collect information on bootleggers and other criminals, delivering their findings to the district attorney. That body of men is only twice referenced in the movie and the first does not occur until more than half way through the action.

     Also not appearing until probably a third into the plot are Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, who appeared together for the first time in this Wallace Beery vehicle. Beery was a big deal at that time, but in a few years time his name would get billed under the other two as their stars quickly climbed (see China Seas). Beery could be quite the heel and liked to flex his star power, and Harlow, whom MGM borrowed from Howard Hughes who had her on a contract, found particular distaste with the star.

     In The Secret Six, Beery is laborer “Slaugherhouse” who takes up with some bootlegger friends of his upon learning about the great living they earn. When he and his pal Johnny Franks, among others, start to muscle in on a rival bootlegging operation, a shoot out ensues and the rival boss, Colimo (John Miljan) finds his kid brother killed. Franks pins the rap on Slaughterhouse, but when Colimo’s gang goes after him, they only wound the brute. Getting his revenge, Slaughterhouse shoots Franks and takes over his restaurant. He has now become essentially the boss of the operation. Enter reporter Carl (Gable) who with another reporter Hank (John Mack Brown) are trying to get the scoop on the murder while also flirting with Anne (Harlow), a moll of what is now Slaughterhouse’s gang, who is also now arriving out of no where.

     Although Anne selects Hank as her beau, both reporters hang around the gang, trying to get scoops on all the goings on. Slaughterhouse, who now is going by Louis Scorpio, has also bribed them for giving him favorable light in the papers. The mobster has managed to elect a new mayor, which will keep the cops off his back to an extent. Carl and Hank are separately helping the police and the Secret Six by spilling information on the bootleggers. Hank has a theory that the same gun was used to kill Franks and Colimo, who has by now been knocked off. So he’s in search of it in the Scorpio home, which has the boss wise to his disloyalty. Anne tries to warn her man, but he is gunned down on the subway.

     The case goes to court and Anne and Carl testify against Scorpio, but because the jury is fixed, the man gets off. He is now obviously out to kill the two snitches and is nearly successful.

     The Secret Six was released before the Production Code was in full swing, so it managed to get by with some considerable violence. Some theaters refused to air it because of that concern. Unlike some other pre-code gems, however, in this flick the bad guy does not get away with his crimes. He is also horribly unlikable, so no one is really rooting for that approach.

     The movie was a great move for Gable and Harlow. MGM exec Irving Thalberg had scenes added to bolster Gable’s character and the actor was hired to a contract with the company thereafter. Harlow too would soon join the MGM ranks. Both of those actors are enjoyable to watch but Beery does a great job of being an awful person. He is both evil and persuasive so that he does not become a totally hateable man, but one we know not to cross.

  • The Secret Six is set for 7:30 a.m. ET Aug. 14 on TCM.

Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com

Trouble in Paradise

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Trouble in Paradise (1932)

When Trouble in Paradise sought to be re-issued three years after its 1932 release, the Hayes Office said: No way. The film that had been alright for release upon completion, if not without some minor, ignored objections, was far too scandalous for 1935 when the Production Code was in full swing. What was Director Ernst Lubitsch‘s crime with his first talking romantic comedy? Obvious sexual innuendos and a couple of thieves who get off scott free.

The subject that most comes up in discussions of the Production Code is sex. Before the code, women could have multiple partners, couples could have extramarital affairs, and the camera, dialogue or action could clearly indicate that a sexual act had just occurred. Another subject that fell under the Hayes Office’s purview, however, were criminal sorts. Individuals found as outright thieves or murders had to be punished –either by the legal system, suicide or other killing. You see this in many of the popular gangster movies of the 1930s and 1940s where our beloved hoodlum James Cagney or whomever gets it in the end. I suppose the message from the powers that be was understandable enough: Do not encourage crime. But those gangster films and Trouble in Paradise with them still glorify and make sexy the criminal aspect, so the restriction seems a moot one.

It was because of the Code’s distaste for Trouble in Paradise years later, which prevented anyone seeing it again until 1968 (with it unavailable on video or DVD until 2003), that this film has gone largely forgotten despite being among Lubitsch’s greatest work and a standout in film history. Herbert Marshall is Gaston who in his Venice hotel room eagerly accepts a visit from Lily, embodied by Miriam Hopkins, a woman claiming to be a countess. A man in another room has just been robbed of a large sum of money by a man posing as a doctor and seeking to examine his tonsils. During their dinner, Lily and Gaston intermingle romantic sentiments and the woman declares that Gaston is the man who robbed the neighboring Francois Fileba (Edward Everett Horton). As you can see in the video below, this wonderfully romantic and comedic scene –flush with “the Lubitsch touch”– continues as Gaston reveals that Lily has stolen the stolen wallet from him. Also pick-pocketed from the couple by each other are Lily’s pin, Gaston’s watch and Lily’s garter –but she is not getting that back. As an audience, we instantly decide that this pairing is perfect and the two will have an adventuresome future we can all enjoy.

While in Paris some time later, Gaston and Lily plot the thievery of an expensive purse from Mlle. Colet, played by Kay Francis while she is at the opera. To their fortune, the woman puts a notice of a reward for the bag that would exceed the amount the robbers could get if they sold it. Gaston returns the purse but during his visit with Ms. Colet, manages to woo her and she hires him as her secretary, in charge of all her financial affairs. Ms. Colet is the head of a major perfume company –by inheritance– and has a board of directors running things who now takes orders from Gaston. Colet also has “boyfriends” in none other than Mr. Fileba, the tonsil victim, and “The Major” (Charlie Ruggles). With Gaston in her life, however, she loses even more interest in the two feuding beaux. Gaston has brought Lily in to help him with his new duties and the two plan to rob Mlle. Colet’s safe once more cash has been deposited there, via Gaston’s new financial orders. Lily begins to get jealous, however, when it becomes apparent Mlle. Colet wants alone time with the secretary. It is unclear how much of an affair is conducted between Gaston and Colet, although they spend late nights together.

Mr. Fileba has yet to identify Gaston as the man who robbed him, and it is quite amusing to watch this fabulous character actor try to pull from his memory whether or not he has met the man previously. Eventually, The Major says at first he mistook Gaston for a doctor, and click Mr. Fileba has solved the mystery. Realizing this, Gaston and Lily plan to get out of town fast with the little money they can take from the safe at present. Lily is home packing but Gaston is getting tied up in Colet’s embraces as they visit each others’ bedrooms in a highly suggestive but funny number of scenes. What concludes the film are questions of: will they steal the money, will Mlle. Colet find out, and with whom will Gaston choose to stay, but I will not give that away.

I mentioned the highly risqué feel to this film, so here are a few examples. The opening title reads “Trouble in”, an image of a bed appears, and then the word “Paradise” shows up. Thank you, Lubitsch for explaining this movie is about trouble in bed. Besides Gaston and Colet responding to knocks at their bedroom doors by opening the door of the other, the end includes an embrace between those two that is filmed through a mirror above the woman’s bed so we can connect their embrace with that piece of furniture. Several edits using different angles also inserts a perfect shadowed silhouette of the kissing couple on the bed itself. Bullseye.

The sexy suggestions are not why one should watch Trouble in Paradise, however, but instead the snappy Lubitsch dialogue that had me laughing out loud throughout. The film is ripe with quick banter among the characters delivered in the most sophisticated manner that makes slapstick look utterly primitive. Apparently, Lubitsch throughout his career would act out every part in a movie to show the actors how to deliver the lines and move their bodies. He had started as an actor in Germany before entering directing there and finishing out the silent era in America, coming here at the bequest of Mary Pickford. Peter Bogdanovich has said that Lubitsch managed to get performances out of his actors that they did not convey in other films, which was likely the result of this control he exerted on the actual acting.

Sources: Peter Bogdanovich introduction on Criterion Collection DVD, TCM.com

Frenzy

Frenzy (1972)

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      Ryan and I caught Alfred Hitchcock‘s Frenzy on the big screen this week as part of  Columbus’ annual CAPA Summer Movie Series, allegedly the longest running classic movie series nationally. This was the one film on this year’s lineup that I was dead set on seeing because watching it a couple years ago, I walked away feeling scarred for life and absolutely hating the picture. After some reading on the subject, however, I knew I needed to give it another shot. As you can tell from the rating, I’m glad I did.

     Made in 1972, Frenzy was filmed entirely in England and earned Hitch his first “R” rating. Make note, however, that the  Motion Picture Association of America did not establish the rating system we know today until 1968, so this was only his second film to be subject to the system (the other being 1969′s Topaz). That is not to say Frenzy in any way compares to Hitchcock’s other films as far as violence and horror goes. With the rating system came a freedom from the Production Code that outright forbid nudity and certain displays of sexual engagement. At last, Hitchcock was freed to go to the extent he surely always wanted to with his prior films. Frenzy contains both nudity and rape and because of that, I think, makes it distinctly different from prior films that relied more on suspense than visual impact.

     I left my first viewing of Frenzy feeling dreadful because of one particular scene: the nude rape/strangling of a woman. The moment is quite grotesque, but going in this second time prepared for that moment, I made it through, although not without gripping the armrest quite vigorously. What I found left over once surviving that scene is that Hitchcock really had perfected his craft by the time he made this, his second-to-last film. The editing, tracking shots, use or lack of sound and fantastic plot development prove what a pro he was.

     The film opens on a crowd of people listening to a speaker before someone notices a woman’s nude body floating in the river, a tie around her neck. She is the latest of the Necktie Murderer victims, crimes modeled after real-life Neville Heath, a sort of modern-day Jack the Ripper, who sexually assaulted his victims as part of the crime. The shot following that of the floating body is of Jon Finch playing Richard Blaney, who is adjusting a tie in his room, looking into the mirror. Blaney next gets fired from his job at the bar where he also resides. He bids farewell to his barmaid girlfriend and next stops to see fruit monger Bob Rusk (Barry Foster). Rusk gives his cashless pal a tip on a horse race and offers him money, but Blaney lies and says he has just been paid. After getting tight at a bar where he stands next to two men discussing the murders and describing the killer as a social misfit with sociopathic qualities, Blaney learns the horse he could not afford to back won at 20-1 stakes and violently curses and destroys a bunch of grapes Rusk had given him.

     Blaney’s next stop is his ex-wife’s dating agency. When the two start to quarrel, Brenda Blaney (Barbara Leigh-Hunt) asks her secretary to leave for the day. Ultimately, the two get dinner and Brenda slips some cash into the man’s coat, which he does not discover until after he has engaged the Salvation Army as his lodging for the night.

     At this point, Hitchcock has thoroughly set up Blaney as the likely Necktie Murderer. Our first encounter with the man was juxtaposed against the body in the river and focused on the his tie. We learn from two strangers the likely characteristics of the murder, such as violent outbursts, which we see from Blaney after missing out on the horse. His fight with Brenda also is suggestive of the fact. Mr. Blaney, however –and this is no spoiler– is not the murderer, thus setting up a typical Hitchcock wrong-man, run-for-cover plot.

     The next day, Rusk shows up at Brenda’s office while the secretary is at lunch. He has apparently engaged the agency to find him a mate, but because he seeks a woman who enjoys being hurt during sex, the agency has been unsuccessful, as has every other one in town. Rusk, who up to this point has seemed quite charming, becomes increasingly creepy as he tells Brenda she is his “type of woman.” What ensues through this prolonged sequence is the aforementioned rape –depicted as either a thrusting Rusk or a close up on Brenda’s unmoving face as she says the 91st Psalm– during which Rusk chants “lovely” with every motion. Upon completion, he calls the woman a bitch and begins to remove his tie, first transferring a tie pin with his initial to his lapel. Brenda screams and struggles for some time before the gruesome murder consumes her. What follows is the most tragic part of the movie from a filmmaking standpoint: We are given a shot of the now-dead woman, eyes wide, tongue hanging oddly from her mouth, which incited some laughter from the audience with which I sat.

Could have gone without this shot.

     Blaney stops by Brenda’s office after the crime but finds no one there. Unfortunately, the secretary spots him leaving and next finds her boss dead. Using utterly no sound, the camera is fixed on the side of the building and empty street as we wait for the secretary to climb the stairs, enter the office and utter the inevitable scream. This creates so much tension by doing so little. The police next fill the newspapers with a description of Blaney, who by this point has taken girlfriend Babs (Anna Massey) to stay at a nice hotel, using the cash from Brenda. The hotel clerks recognize the man described in the paper and call the police, but Blaney and Babs have fled out the window and sit in a park while the man tries to defend himself to his girl. The couple is next coaxed up to the flat of a friend, aware of the trouble, whose wife is convinced of Blaney’s guilt. Babs goes to work to get her belongings –the two plan to flee town the next morning– and after a row with her boss, is rescued by Rusk and offered a place to stay. Letting the girl into his flat, Rusk mentions she is his “kind of woman”.

     With the close of the apartment door, the camera backs silently and slowly down the stairs and out the building door to the street. Hitchcock deliberately sought to offer this second murder in complete contrast to the gruesome violence of the first and not provide violence for violence’s sake.

      The remainder of the Frenzy follows Rusk, discovering his tie pin missing, stuck in the back of a truck among potato sacks where he has concealed Babs’ body. He comically is kicked in the face by the woman’s leg and breaks his pocket knife trying to pry her stiff hand open. He escapes undiscovered, but the police soon notice a body hanging out of the truck. When Blaney next goes to Rusk for a place to hide, the man stashes him in his apartment and then alerts the brass. Rusk has also stuffed Babs’ clothes in Blaney’s duffle bag, which then allows the wronged man to identify the real murderer, although no one will believe him. Blaney is convicted of the crime, but continues to rant and rave about Rusk, leading the chief detective to investigate further.

      Frenzy contains some of the most blatant Hitchcockian humor. Throughout the movie, Chief Inspector Oxford (Alec McCowen) has been dealing with a wife engaged in cooking classes, who continually presents him with bizarre and unappetizing meals. First, she gives him a soup containing fish heads and octopi, which is supplemented with whole quail too small to enjoy. Pig feet is the next entrée we see him stuck with. The audience had many laughs both at these moments and other deliberately humorous times throughout the film.

      Hitchcock was highly influenced by the French New Wave approach to filmmaking with Frenzy, having engaged in screenings of the works of his friend Francois Truffaut among those of Antonioni and Goddard. He took production to his home town of London to film as much on location as possible and used unknown actors to create a feel of realism. As I previously mentioned, Frenzy allowed Hitchcock to create the sort of films he likely always wanted to make. He was an avid reader of true crime stories and his favorite were those featuring necrophilia and strangling. Naturally, finally facing the freedom to feature rape, he leaped on the opportunity. Although I generally contend that Hitchcock’s great work ended with The Birds, Frenzy has generally been considered by critics to be a highly important piece in his career and I do not dispute that now.

The MacGuffin: Unlike most Hitchcock films, Frenzy contains no macguffin.

Where’s Hitch? Among the crowd at the film’s opening listening to the speaker. He wears a black suit and black bowler hat. He is featured again in the same scene as spectators look into the river.

Source: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

20,000 Years in Sing Sing

Gasser

20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)

     The year was 1932. The Production Code was only starting to strangle the contents of films, Bette Davis was still sporting the platinum blonde look and playing sleazy roles, and Spencer Tracy was kind of young-looking. 20,000 Years in Sing Sing was one of those films that like many of those to come under the iron fist of the Code would have no choice but to punish the criminal, no matter how likeable he was.

     I learned about this code restriction from reading about the struggles Alfred Hitchcock had with several of his films. He often wanted villains or anti-heroes to get of scott free, but the big wigs in the Hayes Office required those who commit a serious crime to be punished for it, whether through the penal system or via suicide. For that reason, several Hitchcock bad guys kill themselves or get a comeuppance the director would rather have avoided.

     In 20,000 Years in Sing Sing we have a criminal serving his time, but he ultimately pays a mortal price for another crime he did not commit. As Tommy Connors, Tracy is some sort of hoodlum with pull in New York, but when he moves into Sing Sing for armed robbery, he is surprised to find his lawyer Joe Finn (Louis Calhern) is unable to secure either a release or at least a comfy stay. When issued an oversized uniform, Connors gets riled and starts throwing his fists around. The warden (Arthur Byron) agrees to let him off on the uniform requirement, allows him to wander around in long underwear, then assigns him to the ice house.

     When a small group of inmates plan an escape, Connors is all for it until he realizes the bust will go down on a Saturday –his jinx. He backs out at the last minute and the plan goes awry, resulting in two dead inmates and one who eventually gets the chair. The warden knows Connors had the option of trying for the escape and their relationship improves knowing he opted not to.

     Throughout his time in prison –a stint of five to 30 years– Connors has been visited by his girlfriend Fay, played by Davis. She has been allowing the lawyer to flirt with her in the hopes she can motivate him to get Connors set free. Fay and lawyer Finn get into a bad car accident and the girl thinks she is going to die. The warden learns of this and allows Connors to go see her provided he return to the prison that night. Connors has every intention of doing so until he runs into Finn at Fay’s place and the two get into a tussle. Fay shoots Finn from her bed but Connors absconds with the weapon. The incident might not have been a problem had not a curious cop been following Connors and heard the whole thing. It takes a couple weeks, but Connors does return to prison, stands trial and is convicted of the crime.

     Tracy gives a great performance. He had a wide range of personalities he could play and did a great job of presenting the tough guy with enough sense to know when to stop fighting. His character undergoes a bit of a transformation away from the arrogance the outside world laid upon him and toward the humble status of an every man no better than the next. Davis, too, gives a swell portrayal of a loyal girlfriend truly in love with her inmate beau. Never have I seen so much smooching in a film from this era. The character was not one we would see Davis play starting a few years hence, but she certainly proves there was no role she could not master.

  • 20,000 Years in Sing Sing is set for 12:45 p.m. ET Aug. 3 on TCM.

Source: Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

The Girl from Missouri

Dullsville

Girl From Missouri (1934)

     I was excited to come across a pairing of Jean Harlow and Franchot Tone in a romantic flick as I enjoy Harlow and find Tone quite charming, but their pairing in The Girl From Missouri produced poor results on the acting front.

     Both Harlow as Eadie and Tone as Tom gave amateurish performances in this story of a girl who wants nothing more than to marry with her virtue in tact. Eadie leaves her home in Missouri because the booze joint her mother and step-father run will eventually create a fate similar, I suspect, to that which befell Barbara Stanwyck‘s character in Baby Face. In New York with her pal Kitty (Patsy Kelly), the two work as chorus girls while Eadie plots how to land a millionaire husband. Performing at the party of one such wealthy gent, Eadie wrangles a suspiciously easy proposal from host Frank Cousins (Lewis Stone), who gives the girl ruby cufflinks to make into an engagement ring. Once she is out of the room, Cousins shoots himself over financial trouble, thus explaining his willingness to “marry” the dame. Eadie and Kitty rush into the room and are held there as police search for the missing rubies. Another millionaire, T.R. Page (Lionel Barrymore), who somehow knows the girls are innocent of the theft, sneaks the gems out of Eadie’s stocking and returns them to the girl later.

     The next day, Eadie is on the hunt for T.R.’s hand in marriage and follows him to Palm Beach after he gives her some dough on which to get by. There she runs into Tom, who happens to be T.R.’s son, but she does not know that at first, so she resist him. Despite everyone’s suspicions, Eadie is not a gold digger but merely someone who wants a proper chance in life for her children. When Tom locks her in his room one evening and tries to put the moves on her, she convinces him that she is on the level about being “clean”. They love each other but Tom has had sex on the brain more so than marriage. When he does come around to the idea, his father superficially agrees to the union but conspires with the district attorney and newspapermen to frame Eadie not only for stealing the rubies but for having an affair with a stranger.

     So the concept is Eadie is a girl who everyone thinks is a hussy but who really just wants to get married without compromising her virginity. Her forward approach with men and flashy looks suggest just what everyone thinks, but her words are the only thing insisting otherwise. She is supposed to be in love with Tom, but neither actor convinced me. Tom is first introduced as on the phone with a sweetheart whom he quickly hangs up on when he spots Eadie, so naturally we think he is a playboy. Indeed, all he really wants from the blonde is a good time until he finds out she is “pure”, which is apparently all it takes to be marriage material, never mind the social boundaries or her continually deteriorating reputation.

     There is a cute scene when Tom throws a drunk Eadie in the shower and gets in himself, hat suit and all, and tells her they are going to get married immediately. The moment seems romantic and sexy, but it is cut short before anything profound can be said. This might have been the result of Production Code restrictions. The Girl from Missouri was the subject of many re-shoots and re-editing because of the decency code that was now in full enforcement. The title too underwent many changes before landing on the bland Girl from Missouri. At first it was “Eadie is a Lady” based on a popular song at the time, the lyrics of which suggested the opposite of the title. The Hayes Office also felt the option of “100% Pure” suggested otherwise, and also nixed “Born to be Kissed” as too suggestive.

     Despite the code restrictions that perhaps dampened the quality of the story, the actors have no excuse for their performances. Harlow is a poor crier and both she and Tone had moments of lousy acting that is not present in most of their work. It just goes to show you cannot pair two good-looking people together and expect magic.

Source: Robert Osborne

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