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Raintree County

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Raintree County (1957)

     Raintree County marked a significant point in the career of Montgomery Clift, although not a positive one. It was a box office hit because people flocked to the theater to compare the before and after images of the face of a man who had been disfigured in a car accident during filming. Myself, I could not identify a change in his facade, but I did think he looked different throughout from the Clift to which I am accustomed. He had a rather stiff, stoic face that curves into a smile only once, I think, during the story.

     The accident happened when Clift left a party at the home of his costar Elizabeth Taylor. He hit a phone poll, and thanks to Kevin McCarthy who witnessed the collision, was quickly attended by Taylor, Rock Hudson and others. Taylor allegedly removed two loose front teeth from his mouth that were threatening to choke the actor. Filming was halted while Clift recovered for nine weeks from a broken jaw and nose and plastic surgery to repair part of his face. The incident also led to a dependence on pills and alcohol, which would plague the rest of his career.

     Raintree County can easily be compared to Gone with the Wind because it takes place both before and during the Civil War, involves love –some of it unrequited– and a particular emphasis on place, nevermind that it is more than three hours long. Raintree County, Indiana, is where most of our characters grew up. We come in on Clift’s John Shawnessy and Eva Marie Saint as Nell, his sort-of girlfriend. They are nearing the end of high school, but the entrance of Taylor’s Susanna Drake sends their lives in different directions than they expected. Susanna, whose family owns a house in Raintree County but is from the south, quickly falls in love with John and he with her. They make love in a lakeside forest and Susanna next says she is “going to have a baby”. Prior to this point, John was not really through with Nell despite her hurt feelings, but the forthcoming bundle of joy forces him to marry the southern belle.

     The couple moves to the south and John starts to learn unsavory things about his bride: she is racist, pro-slavery and is not really pregnant. After making some inquiries of Susanna’s relatives, our protagonist learns that her mother went insane, her father visited Cuba for a long time where Susanna was born and from where he returned with a non-slave black woman, and there was some confusion after a fire killed those three about which woman was in bed with the father. Susanna herself will convey the whole story of the fire closer to the end of the movie.

     John is not really digging the south, so the pair return to Raintree County where Susanna does eventually have a baby, Jim. The woman’s mental health clearly starts deteriorating around the time of the pregnancy, and her struggles will shape the remainder of the film that involves John going to war merely to hunt down the son his wife has kidnapped and taken southward.

     Taylor was nominated for an Oscar for this role, which she greatly deserved. Besides playing a perfect southern belle with an almost natural-seeming accent, she does wonderfully with the insanity part of her character. I felt Clift’s performance was quite stiff, possibly because of the accident’s effects on his face. For both actors I could criticize some of the emotion. Any time they declared their love for each other, I was surprised because their performances had been rather unconvincing up to that point. Only Saint really wore her emotions on her sleeve so we could know how much she longed for her lost love.

     Raintree County  is a long movie to sit through, but it has a wonderful and mysterious/scandalous story highlighted by beautiful scenery and costumes, which were designed by Walter Plunkett who earned an Academy Award nomination for them.

  • Raintree County is set for 6 a.m. Aug. 20 on TCM.

Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com

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Hitchcock Blogathon #2: North by Northwest

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North By Northwest (1959)

     North by Northwest certainly ranks among the higher regarded Hitchcock films but has remained one that I never have a very strong desire to watch, if not for superficial reasons. At 136 minutes the movie certainly requires a time commitment, and I have never been terribly fond of Eva Marie Saint. I don’t know from where my aversion to the actress stems –she is certainly beautiful and sexy in North by Northwest— but I think I would have been happier to see Princess Grace return to America for this one, as it was offered to her.

     The plot is a complex one that Cary Grant continually complained during filming he could not make heads nor tails of. Indeed, it is one of those films that one simply must enjoy the ride and not worry too much about all the complications that contribute to it. Grant plays Roger Thornhill, an advertising man who is mistaken for a spy and taken on the adventure of a lifetime in attempting to clear himself/foil the villains. James Mason offers a great villain in Phillip Vandamm and Saint plays his lover in a role that changes as the plot progresses.

     The picture, originally titled “In a Northwesterly Direction”, utilizes two of the typical Hitchcock plot devices: the wrong man scenario and the chase. In this case, the chase takes Thornhill across the country from New York to Chicago and finally Mount Rushmore. This his first film with MGM Studios, Hitchcock was able to shoot many scenes on location, although the government blocked filming in the United Nations, where a man is killed, and on the actual Mount Rushmore, where the chase climaxes as characters climb across the famous faces. The monument was created on a soundstage but was real enough to dupe the Department of the Interior into thinking their orders had been defied. The most famous scene, however, takes place both in a cornfield and on a studio set. When Thornhill is lured to the middle of nowhere outside of Chicago, he is chased down by a crop dusting plane that uses not only pesticides but bullets. The filming of that portion of the movie was quite laborious with horrid heat and complicated plane choreography plaguing Grant and Hitchcock. The most famous shot of the plane running down Grant as he sprints toward the camera was an exquisite use of back projection. The plane had been previously filmed and then projected behind Grant as he runs on the set.

     North by Northwest was among the Hitchcock films that gained unwanted involvement from censors attempting to enforce the rather arbitrary Production Code. Officials did not like the effeminate nature of Martin Landau‘s character, a gay sidekick to Vandamm. They also did not care for the implied sexual relationship between Grant and Saint as intimated by Thornhill’s overnight hideout in the woman’s train compartment. What bothered them most, however, was Saint’s line “I never make love on an empty stomach.” Hitchcock traded this dialogue in order to keep the compartment visit. It is dubbed as “I never discuss love on an empty stomach” but Saint’s lips tell the original tale. Hitchcock snuck one last blow to decency into the final shot of the film. After Grant pulls Saint onto the upper berth in a train compartment, calling her “Mrs. Thornhill”, the fallic train enters a tunnel. It was “The most explicit depiction of the bottom-line facts of the sexual act ever pulled off under the Production Code,” as film scholar Bill Krohn described it.

The MacGuffin: Grant must get his hands on a bit of microfilm containing government secrets before they are traded to another country.

Where’s Hitch? At the beginning the rotund man misses a bus just after his name passes off screen.

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

I will be posting reviews of Hitchcock movies every hour ending at 8 p.m. today, but other members of the Classic Movie Blog Association, which is hosting the blogathon, have plenty to offer also. Links to their articles is up at the CMBA site. Check them out!

14 Hours

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14 Hours (1951)

     At last I have triumphed over one of my movie checklists. 14 Hours concludes my viewing of all Grace Kelly Movies but unfortunately had very little of the princess. Being her first film, I knew she did not have a lead role, but she still leaves a memorable impact in this striking picture. From her appearance, one would not think this was Kelly’s first appearance on the big screen (she had done some TV dramas prior). She’s done up in her typical fashion: fur coat, black veil headpiece, glistening blonde hair, which belied her 21 years of age. Oddly, she would next make High Noon in which she looks the least like the Grace Kelly moviegoers came to know.

     Kelly was offered a stock contract with Fox after completing the flick but declined it to return to the theater, where she had worked on Broadway and in her home state of Pennsylvania. She was trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and also did some modeling work in the early days to supplement her income. Her real break-out role was the aforementioned High Noon, in which she was cast as a Quaker bride because of her inexperience and natural reserved personality. With only 11 motion pictures to her credit, Kelly was choosy about which films she would take on, and frankly, Green Fire might be the only stinker among the bunch. It was actually in her least glamorous role, the wife of an alcoholic in The Country Girl, that landed her a Best Actress Oscar. She was also nominated for a supporting role in her third film, Mogambo.

     I will contend that High Society was a splendid end to Kelly’s Hollywood career, although I know Philadelphia Story purist will disagree. She married Prince Ranier and became princess of Monaco in 1956, just five years after making 14 Hours. Director Alfred Hitchcock, with whom she made three features, tried to lure her back to the movies after starting her new life, but scenes such as a marital rape in Marnie did not sit well with the people of Monaco. Unfortunately, Hitchcock failed to adequately replace the golden-haired star with Tippi Hendren, Eva Marie Saint and Kim Novak. So Kelly remained in Monaco, making a visit to her Hollywood haunts with her children in the ’60s. Princess Grace died prematurely in 1982 after suffering a slight stroke at the wheel of her car while traveling with her daughter down a road allegedly featured in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. The daughter was fine, but Kelly died from her injuries.

     14 Hours itself is a pretty great film. It is entirely centered around a man (Richard Basehart) perched on the ledge of a hotel 15 or so stories up. The film commences with him on the ledge and follows until he is finally inside after what I assume to be 14 hours. One traffic cop (Paul Douglas) manages to gain the prepared jumper’s confidence and talks to him throughout the whole ordeal trying to determine what has upset him. Kelly shows up as a high society woman visiting her lawyer’s office in order to finalize a divorce. The office provides her a view of the building. The streets are also blocked and crowded with what looks to be half the population of New York. Besides the action in the hotel, a couple small plots unfold among the spectators. Kelly’s character finds compassion after watching the man for a couple hours and decides not to follow through on the divorce, to her husband’s delight. Two young people standing next to each other in the crowd fall in love, lose each other and are reunited. Agnes Moorehead comes in as the man’s mother and gives a great performance as a patronizing matron. Barbara Bel Geddes also shows up as an ex-girlfriend, who might be the source of his anguish.

     The movie uses only diegetic sound until the story’s resolution, but it is not a quiet film. Always in the background is the sound from the street below as the thousands of spectators mutter concern and hedge their bets. This serves to really focus attention on the very human aspects of the film. The picture seems less like a movie and more like an actual crisis unfolding. Without music to tell the viewer when to be on-edge, the audience is left constantly nervous. 14 Hours might have inspired in part the contemporary Phone Booth, which takes place entirely in and around a phone booth, but also has some sinister stuff going on that this film lacks.

     Douglas really gives a splendid performance as the middle-aged, lower-ranked cop who seems to be the only one who truly cares about the man’s troubles. 14 Hours did not do well at the box office despite critical acclaim, so it is understandable why such a good picture has faded into cinematic history. This is not one that I have ever seen scheduled on TCM, so I had to Netflix it. Good thing it is available on DVD.

Sources: Grace Kelly: A Life in Pictures by Jenny Curtis; Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light by Patrick McGilligan

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