Category Archives: 1930s

Little Caesar (1931)

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*. Of the Big Three early gangster films (the others being The Public Enemy and Scarface), Little Caesar strikes me as the oddest.
*. It’s based on the novel of the same name by W. R. Burnett, which was a big bestseller loosely based on the story of Al Capone. But on screen it was transformed, in part because of issues with the censors but also as a result of a pretty free degree of interpretation.
*. The most obvious, and notorious, example of this has to do with Rico’s sexuality. Is he gay? I know some people who object to anyone even raising the point, seeing it as part of some sort of revisionist cultural agenda, but the fact is Burnett himself received this impression, and objected to the way Rico was portrayed (though he was impressed with Robinson’s performance).
*. Given the impossibility of directly addressing the issue at the time, I think this movie does go as far as it could in this direction. Rico has no time for women himself, though in all fairness he also stays away from booze. Instead, he seems mainly set on being a snappy dresser with lots of bling. (Capone liked nice clothes and women; the two passions aren’t exclusive.)

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*. Rico also has a crush on Joe Massara, and they make a compelling couple. I found it odd that Richard Jewell, in his DVD commentary, says that Clark Gable (who was originally suggested for the part) would have made a better Joe because he was a tougher, less polished, less elegant guy than Douglas Fairbanks Jr. But Joe is less of a tough guy than Rico, and should appear more elegant. He is a professional dancer, after all.

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*. Then there is the fawning of Otero, which includes his crawling into bed with Rico at one point. Just hero worship, or something more? People point to the tailor scene where Rico is getting fitted for a tux (and which opens, I have seen it suggested, with Otero in a position that suggests he is fellating his boss). Compare the end of that scene, where Rico oddly adopts a mincing, feminine pose for Otero, with the tailor scene in The Public Enemy, where Cagney threatens violence on the obviously gay tailor.
*. Give credit to Edward G. Robinson for inflecting Rico with this kind of subtlety. Actually, give credit to Robinson for everything good here. As Jewell remarks, his performance carries a “not so great” movie, and “transcends the rest of the film.” He’s not a cool killer at all but as jittery as a can of jumping beans, always reaching for his gat or popping out of his seat to go dashing off somewhere or put someone in their place. That nervous energy and lines bitten through the horizontal zipline of his mouth make him the constant focus of attention.
*. Was he deliberately cast against a pair of stolid bores? Fairbanks is a dull straight man, while Thomas Jackson’s Flaherty is even less emotive. Flaherty is a polarizing role, I find. Some people love him, but to me he seems too laid back, appearing to run out of energy halfway through some of his lines. But then perhaps that makes him the perfect foil for Rico. They’re both almost caricatures.

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*. I thought the character of Joe Massara conventional and a bit unconvincing, but apparently he was based on George Raft. So there I go.
*. In the original script there is mention of Rico holding his comb at the end, but I don’t see it on screen. I think the comb was supposed to be one of his tics, like Tom Powers’s short jab, but it got dropped along the way. But it’s more evidence of how Rico does like to preen. He can’t even resist getting his picture taken despite being warned about this. And the way he struts down the street the next morning, holding an armful of newspapers with his picture in them, is wonderful.
*. Another odd thing about the film is the heist of the Bronze Peacock. I’ll admit the first time I saw this I thought Joe was just imagining what might happen if he went along with the gang’s plan. It has so much of that dream quality about it. For example, we never see Joe give the high sign to the gang that all’s clear, which was supposed to be his job. Then everything happens in a series of overlapping dissolves, as though in a dream sequence.

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*. But at least that heist shows the gang doing something. On the commentary Jewell makes an interesting point about something that was bugging me: the film “completely leaves out Prohibition.” Indeed Rico, quite conspicuously, doesn’t even drink. Aside from robbing each other it’s not clear what sort of rackets the gang is involved in.
*. Was there a problem with censors? They may have just been playing it safe. On the other hand, I was surprised to see a policeman actually being gunned down. This is easy to miss (it’s dark and foggy), but Rico clearly shoots the cop that kills Otero.

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*. This just goes to show what a bad ass Rico is. Cagney’s Tom Powers has some redeeming features, but aside from his awkward affection for and loyalty to Joe, Rico has none. He’s just a tough, and perhaps even a psychopath. In comparison, the “yellow” driver Tony is given a scene with his mother where he explains his breakdown and which gives him humanity. And Joe of course has a girlfriend. But Rico has no family except for the hag-like Ma Magdalena (veteran actress Lucille La Verne, who would go on to provide the voice for the evil witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs). Jewell explains how the “sociological” gangster film, which sought to explain criminals, was still a few years away. But there were more well-rounded gangsters at the time. I think Rico just doesn’t have any depth. There’s nothing to explain, no story to tell.
*. Is it surprising then that his goals in life are so empty? He wants the beautiful things other people have: their rings, stick pins, nice clothes and even nicer houses. But these things mean nothing to him except as cosmetics and accessories. They’re only gangster style. What we get at the end isn’t so much the wages of sin as the morning after the romance of capital.

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The Lady Vanishes (1938)

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*. I like how Geoffrey O’Brien begins his Criterion essay on this film by making reference to Hitchcock’s desire to present the audience with a piece of cake. This movie is a confection; not a pure confection, but a treat.
*. The thing is, there’s something for everyone here. It’s a rom-com. It’s a political thriller. There’s action. There’s sex.
*. Or at least as much sex as you could get away with. Which may have been more in England than in the U.S. at the time. The business with Anna the maid undressing for Charters and Caldicott is pure fantasy, as are the three young women we see hanging about their hotel room in their underwear while the poor fellow delivering room service tries to observe the proprieties.
*. It’s that tension between the flagrantly sexual and moral rectitude that provides not only the charm, but an extra bit of thrill. In his commentary Brude Eder refers to such sequences (and others, like the scene where Redgrave crawls over top of Lockwood in bed) as “erotic and chaste,” “very sexual and non-threatening,” but I wonder. They really aren’t very chaste, are they? And aren’t they just a little threatening? It all seems very flirty to me, and flirtation is always a dance on a volcano (an image I’ll come back to).

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*. The plot had been used before in a French novel, and would be used again (most notably in Bunny Lake Is Missing). But the business of writing the name on the window is a brilliant touch. My only problem with it is figuring out why it disappears when they enter the tunnel. I understand the lack of light means they wouldn’t be able to see it any more, but wouldn’t it still be there, and visible when they left the tunnel?
*. This is often cited as the last of Hitchcock’s British films (because no one wants to remember Jamaica Inn), and it may be the most British of them all. But again there’s a tension. The Brits we meet are eccentric types, but also snobs and, in the case of Mr. Todhunter, not very likeable. They believe a little too much in keeping up appearances and getting along.

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*. Another thing that makes it so successful is that it’s one of Hitch’s most fluid films. As he went on he tended to jerk from set-piece scene to set-piece scene, with very little of interest in-between. Here we’re swept along smoothly, even before we get on board the train.
*. It helps that the cast are so likeable. Apparently Hitch didn’t much care for Michael Redgrave, but he’s the equal of Margaret Lockwood in the charm department. Dame May Whitty manages to stay just this side of being irritating as Mrs. Froy. And then there’s Charters and Caldicott, a perfect two-shot every time who manage to steal the show with nothing more than inane badinage. A total invention (they aren’t in the novel), they’re a couple made for the movies, and would go on to appear in several more. Next up would be Night Train to Munich.

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*. When I watch Charters and Caldicott I can’t help thinking of Shakespeare’s Falstaff: another comic character, not in the original source material, who went on to take over the first play he appeared in and so went on to be featured in a couple of sequels due to audience demand. Figures like this just seem to be happy accidents.
*. There are things I don’t like, though they tend to be the kinds of things Hithcock didn’t care about. Why, for example, does Dr. Harz keep his gun in his pocket when he’s alone in the compartment with Redgrave and Lockwood? Does he even have a gun in his pocket? How do they get Mrs. Froy’s double into the exact same outfit, when Mrs. Froy is still wearing hers? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have just taken Froy’s clothes? How does Signor Doppo get out of the carriage after escaping from the trunk with the false bottom? These are all the sorts of objections that Hitchcock derided as “the plausibles.”
*. Personally, I don’t much care for Hitch’s derision. I don’t see why any script should be filled with implausibilities. It’s not enough to say “nobody cares” about these matters. I care. I think a good movie should have at least a surface plausibility. This one is cheesecloth.
*. There are other issues. I find the character of the British “nun” to be entirely unconvincing and unnecessary, and I wish they’d left her out. Why does the fact that Mrs. Froy is English mean so much to her? She’s willing to go along with a scam involving the disappearance of Eastern Europeans then? And couldn’t Dr. Harz have found more reliable help? I mean, she’s only stage dressing as it is.

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*. Hitchcock didn’t like how the fight scene played, but when you think about it, fights weren’t his thing. Did he have any great ones? They all seem a bit stiff and staged.
*. I’m not very musical, so is it just me or is that musical cue not very clear? The first time I saw the movie I didn’t understand why the singer beneath Mrs. Froy’s window was being strangled, or that he was passing information. I then didn’t recognize the tune when she later hummed it to Redgrave, or when she was playing it on the piano at the end.
*. I initially thought Paul Lukas was deliberately trying to sound like Bela Lugosi as Dr. Hartz. But they were both from Hungary (or what was then Hungary) so it was probably just a coincidence.
*. I mentioned the effect of feeling like we’re dancing on a volcano here. This is how Jean Renoir described Rules of the Game, but it seems more directly applicable to a film like this. I say this not because of the obvious political message: that conflict is coming and England can’t afford to hide its head in the sand. It’s more like the troubling sense that John Buchan spoke of, that civilization is “a very thin crust.”
*. The people we meet are well off, educated, and refined, but also secretive and repressed. Even Redgrave and Lockwood have to keep their feelings on a tight leash. And let’s face it, anytime you’re spending much time on a train in a movie you’re waiting for it to crash. That’s how train movies are supposed to end.
*. But not here. Instead we are saved by the train going into reverse. Dr. Hartz is even resigned and upbeat, wishing “jolly good luck” to the plucky English. But isn’t that a bit disconcerting? He’s not too worried about losing this battle. He knows there’s going to be a re-match.

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Lot in Sodom (1933)

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*. This film is another “avant-garde” effort by the team of James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, whose The Fall of the House of Usher I’ve commented on previously. I’m not sure who the main creative force was behind the camera.
*. Visually, it’s very much in the same mode as Usher, especially with the (over)use of the kaledoscopic effect of shooting through a prism to generate multiple images of the same subject at odd angles to one another.
*. I don’t know why Watson and Webber were so fond of this effect. It rarely works, by which I mean it’s usually just confusing and distracting without being expressive of much of anything (except more confusion). You’d think they would have seen that. And yet five years after Usher their filmmaking hadn’t advanced a bit.
*. There are some nice things to say about Lot in Sodom. I like the way Sodom is introduced through an ominous ring of smoke and flames, for example. But what makes this particular film such a curiosity is its treatment of homosexuality.
*. It helps to know the Biblical story of the wicked cities of the plain. (Indeed, as with The Fall of the House of Usher, you pretty much have to know the source to understand the film. Watson and Webber were not storytellers.) And the Bible’s message is unambiguous about homosexuality being a grievous sin that fully deserves a cleansing by fire and brimstone.
*. That’s the way it could have played here, and perhaps how you’d expect it to play given this was 1933. But it’s not. The gay young men we see gracefully jumping about nearly (or even wholly) nude don’t seem a bunch of sinful degenerates but rather a troupe of beautiful dancers expressing themselves naturally. I don’t think they’re meant to be seductive, but they aren’t embodiments of evil either.
*. So in this telling the ultimate monitory tale of moral judgment is surprisingly non-judgmental. Yes, Sodom burns at the end, much as the House of Usher collapses into the tarn. But there’s no sense of catharsis, of a just vengeance being meted out by an angry god.
*. In fact, the most physically unflattering portrait in the film is of Lot, a flabby, stock Jew. He even comes across as a bit vile in offering his daughter up to the gay crowd at his door.
*. Can you say it’s a dishonest or misleading presentation of the Biblical story? It’s all there, even quoting chapter and verse in the intertitles. But the traditional moral message is undercut by the film’s sympathetic eye for the devil.

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San Quentin (1937)

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*. I’m not a big fan of this movie, but then I’m not a big fan of prison movies. That’s not to say there haven’t been some good ones. From The Big House and early Warner classics like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Each Dawn I Die the genre has gone on to give us such notable titles as The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great EscapePapillon, Escape from Alcatraz, Midnight Express, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and The Shawshank Redemption. But whenever I watch these movies I can’t help getting an itchy feeling, as though I’m as trapped as the protagonists. Empathy becomes an enemy. If Hollywood movies are meant to be a form of escapist entertainment, what’s with all this confinement?
*. Part of my itchiness may also be due to the prison-house of conventions. Characters type like the sadistic head guard and the fink or snitch, and plot points like the endless plans being made for escape, are all boxes that need to be checked.
*. Then there is the fact that prison films in the 1930s have a hokey flavour to them. We don’t feel we’re among a lot of really bad characters so much as people, like Red Kennedy here, who are down on their luck or who have had some bad breaks.
*. I wonder how much of this is due to a difference in public attitudes. We’ve become used to the notion of a “war on crime,” with a criminal underclass demonized as the enemy. In the 1930s there was more of a belief in the power of rehabilitation and reform. It was the end of the Depression, after all, and there may have been a sense that a trip to the Big House could happen to anyone. In an age of affluence we are less tolerant of those who break the rules.
*. As a corollary, authority figures are far more likely to be questioned or thrown in a darker light in these older films. There’s usually at least one “turkey” who is a corrupt bully (the part played by Barton MacLane in San Quentin).

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*. Another curious point bearing on all of this: the one overtly Christian figure goes by the name of “Dopey” and is mocked for being slow, with his Book of Common Prayer kicked and tossed around in a game of keep-away (a scene cut by British censors). Later, this drives him into a murderous frenzy that lands him in the psych ward. In today’s more sensitive political climate I’m not sure this would be acceptable.
*. Maybe people back then just weren’t as incorrigibly bad as they are assumed to be today. Or, another alternative, it may simply be that as movies have become more realistic they can get away with showing us more. I mean, you’re not going to see scenes of rape or drug use in these early prison flicks (though Chaplin got into the blow when he went to prison in Modern Times). We’re not in Oz yet.
*. Of course, there was always something going on in the dirty ‘thirties that had to be covered up in euphemisms. Like sex. I like it when May Kennedy (Ann Sheridan) tempts Captain Jameson with her “home cooking.” She even gets a wink out of him the second time she trots that one out.
*. But all that said in its defence, I’m still not overly fond of San Quentin. It’s a fairly obvious genre pic, with only a couple of things to recommend it.
*. The first is Bogart. He’s fun to watch, and as with Cagney in Each Dawn I Die the camera just loves him. Unlike Each Dawn I Die, however, there is no George Raft for him to play off against. Pat O’Brien, the star, and a bigger name at the time than Bogie, is no match for him when it comes to screen presence.
*. It’s ridiculous that Bogart is playing Sheridan’s kid brother. He was sixteen years older than her at the time. And even without a big sister he’d be much too old to play Red, who is supposed to be 25 (Bogart was pushing 40, and looks it).
*. The other highlight of the movie is the car chase and all of the stunt driving. This is actually quite impressive, as they really put the vehicles through their paces. There are also a number of convincing crashes and spills, especially when the first car drives into a cliff. It didn’t look like anyone was wearing seatbelts there. Come to think of it, I’m not sure they even had seatbelts in those days (yes they’d been invented, but I don’t believe they were customary until mid-century).
*. Alas, once the ride is over the denouement ties itself into a clumsy knot: satisfying the production code while forcing a resolution to the action. It’s too preposterous for words, but is another part of that earlier, more innocent time.

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Modern Times (1936)

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*. At one point, before Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin could have been considered the most famous person in the world, and his character of the Little Tramp “the most beloved film character of all time” (I’m quoting Saul Austerlitz, but it’s a conventional judgment). Since then his star has slipped somewhat. You’ll find plenty of cinephiles who think Buster Keaton had more talent, and others who will say that much of what made Chaplin popular hasn’t worn well. Tastes are fickle.
*. I incline toward the negative view. I think Keaton is funnier. I rarely laugh at Chaplin, and find his beloved Little Tramp annoying. I think mainly because he seems to be trying so hard to be liked. Especially in this film, when Chaplin must have known his act was wearing thin.
*. Silent comedy could be subtle and understated, but rarely was. (The only bit of understated humour here, and it’s a scene I really enjoy, is when Chaplin and the Mechanic stare at each other after their tool box is eaten by the machine. It may be my favourite shot in the entire movie.) But the problem with overstated, physical slapstick is that it gives the impression of working too much, At least that’s the sense I have here. There’s really nothing funny going on, which gives the proceedings an air of desperation. Chaplin’s Little Tramp (or Factory Worker, to give him his proper title in this film), is almost manic in his attempts to ingratiate himself.
*. Compounding this sense of a star and a film that’s trying too hard is the grotesque feminine parody of the Tramp’s fluttering eyelids and mincing gestures. In the finale his nonsense song is played out like a burlesque strip-tease, something that should be performed in drag.

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*. David Thomson: “The delicacy of Chaplin’s own features, the Italianate daintiness of his gestures, and above all, the mooning after misty emotional contentment are feminine characteristics as conceived by an exquisite man. . . . The history of bisexuality in the movies begins with Chaplin.”
*. And it gets worse. Note how Paulette Goddard is introduced as such a masculine figure, with her blade clenched between her teeth pirate-style while stealing bananas (!) at the dockyard. Even while her father was alive she was clearly the man of the household, just as later she will be the one who goes out and gets a good job (and a house) while Charlie is incarcerated, then sets him up as a waiter and singer/dancer in the same establishment she works in. Even her title, “A gamin,” is masculine (the feminine would be “gamine”).

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*. You may miss a point of etiquette when Goddard greets Chaplin after being released from jail the second time and they walk off down the street. They start with him walking next to the wall and her closer to the street. This was not considered appropriate at the time (and in some circles still isn’t today). The man is supposed to walk next to the street. It may be significant to their confusion of gender roles that she adopts the male position. He corrects her . . . and promptly walks into a lamppost.
*. Goddard is terrific here, and practically steals the show from her co-star in every scene they’re together. But again I’m put off by bad vibes. Chaplin would become Goddard’s second husband (both of them twice her age). She’s 24 here and Chaplin 47.
*. Perhaps we’re just more sensitive to this today, when we keep hearing stories about how women are regularly cast as romantically attached to actors twenty years or more older than they are. But I still get a Woody Allen feeling seeing Chaplin and Goddard together. And I also think there’s something dishonest about the presentation of the relationship between the factory worker and the gamin. On the one hand it’s innocent and asexual (they don’t just sleep in different beds but different buildings, and they both like playing with toys in the department store), but on the other it’s clearly meant as a romantic coupling, what with his imagination of their life of domestic bliss together (where the automatic cow actually works, unlike in The Tramp) and her “sleeping beauty in furs” moment. This is having it both ways, and it adds another level of creepiness.
*. Why is the factory foreman the only guy who doesn’t wear a shirt? He seems shockingly underdressed.

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*. Nothing dates like sentimentality. We look back upon the sentiments of earlier days with disbelief, and sometimes even disgust. Chaplin’s sentimentality was extreme I think even for the time. It’s hard not to compare him to Dickens, both for his status as a popular entertainer with a social conscience, and in psychobiographical terms. Peter Ackroyd, who has written biographies of both men, suggests “that Chaplin was Dickens’s true successor” and makes a good case. In brief: They shared the experience of their family’s fall from respectability and the effective loss of their parents, leading both to construct idealized (that is, sentimental) versions of respectable, bourgeois home life, which is something they both felt exiled from, or that had been stolen from them.

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*. The structure is episodic, built around a series of short set-piece sequences of the kind Chaplin started off in. There are some leitmotifs and themes, but there’s little in the way of story at work.
*. I’m not even sure this movie is really “about” anything. It sets up an already trite critique of industrialization in the factory sequences, has the usual little guy vs. the authorities material, some innocent socialism, and then an ending where our heroes pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and head down the road again. Toward what will surely be more of the same.
*. Is it political? David Denby: “It is impossible, of course, to find anything more than a very coy flirtation with radical politics in Modern Times. The film derives its power from its rejection of twentieth-century urban life, but that rejection is largely aesthetic and moral, and we are hard put to deduce any specific political line from it.”
*. This is worth unpacking just a bit. In the first place there is Chaplin, again, as the coy flirt, only this time in a context where we might not expect it and probably don’t look upon it as charitably. I think the word most often used of such flirts is “incorrigible.” They just can’t stop themselves.
*. But then there is the rejection of twentieth-century urban life. Perhaps in 1936 this was still a viable option, and one that could find some philosophical or even practical justification. Since then, however, the masses have embraced that life, despite its irrationality and even inhumanity. And basing his rejection on moral and aesthetic grounds points to the essentially nostalgic character of Chaplin’s thought. This is a movie that looks backward.

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*. Is the title then ironic? Perhaps more so than it seems. We think of that final shot of Chaplin and Goddard walking together down the road and it seems as though they are riding off into the sunset, leaving a world that has passed them by. But this sequence is supposed to be taking place at dawn, so they are really walking toward a rising sun. One senses a disconnection between what is literally happening on screen and the tone it is presented in.
*. It’s certainly not a bad film. The balletic routines are as polished as any ever filmed, and a number of scenes have gone on to become iconic. But it was already dated in 1936, and not just for being a rather queer sound-silent hybrid. Chaplin had a real interest in major issues of the day, but he saw them from a nineteenth-century point of view. He was older than he looked, and much, much older than he wanted to be seen as being.

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The Devil-Doll (1936)

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*. Why is the title hyphenated? And why is it singular? There are two devil dolls.
*. On the plus side, it helps to distinguish this film from Devil Doll (1964), an even stranger movie.
*. Tod Browning may have been a great American original and a master of the macabre, but there’s something unpleasant — not unsettling, or spooky, or uncanny exactly, but unpleasant — about his imagination.
*. Listen to how Marcel introduces his miniaturized dogs: “Toy? Forgive me, Lavond. Have you been locked away from life so long you don’t recognize a prisoner of life itself?” And later we’ll hear of how the paralyzed Coulvet is “imprisoned in his body.”
*. Browning’s victims are representative of the malady that is the human condition: not just fallen but deformed, crippled, imprisoned by life itself. It’s less scary than it is depressing.
*. The story here is weak, in large part because of hasty and significant changes demanded by the censors. Originally the dolls were to be created by witchcraft, and introducing the idea of a mad-if-not-bad scientist (Marcel sees himself as a humanitarian) made a mess of things. Where, we are left to wonder, does the power of mind control come from? Why does it attach to one person and not another? Voodoo might explain this, but science can’t.
*. I guess the censors also had some say in the resolution of the plot. The ending is dull, anti-climactic, and improbable. But Lavond had to be punished in some way for his transgressions, even if the exact nature of his punishment is left up in the air. He says that death is his plan, but we may wonder. Meanwhile, Maureen O’Sullivan and her faithful Toto are about as uninteresting as supporting characters can get.

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*. Here is Marcel explaining his scheme: “Lavond, my friend, millions of years ago the creatures that roamed this world were gigantic. As they multiplied, the earth could no longer produce enough food. Think of it, Lavond: every living creature reduced to one-sixth its size. One-sixth of its physical need. Food for six times all of us!” Do the math!
*. More weird science: if you take an in-bred peasant half-wit found in a Berlin slum and shrink her one-sixth the size, does that make her a full-wit? Not that it makes much difference, seeing as the dolls are totally under the power of their creators anyway.
*. There are little nods to The Bride of Frankenstein, a movie which came out the year before. The white streak in Malita’s hair for one, and the dolls who look like the little people Dr. Pretorious keeps in his jars. But the stripe of the skunk actually has an even longer pedigree as a mark of Cain. Peter Lorre had one as the psychopathic Abbott in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and Bogart would sport a similar look a few years later in The Return of Doctor X.

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*. The cross-dressed villain wasn’t new either. Browning had Chaney in drag years earlier in The Unholy Three (1925).
*. This isn’t much of a movie. It was an attempt by Browning to try and recapture some of his quickly fading glory, and it failed. Aside from that, it seems mainly to have been devised as a way of showcasing the special effects, which are actually quite well done. The scene that has Lachna climbing the dresser to steal the jewels is particularly good. Otherwise, it’s all a terrible mess.

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The Return of Doctor X (1939)

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*. This needs some sorting out.
*. In the first place, this isn’t a sequel to Doctor X. It doesn’t have any of the same characters, though it does have a couple of the same character types, like the mad scientist and the wisecracking reporter. It doesn’t make use of “synthetic flesh” (opting insted for “synthetic blood”). It doesn’t follow up any of the events of the earlier film.
*. In Doctor X it’s not clear who the title is referring to: Doctor Xavier (never referred to as Doctor X), or just a generic suspect in the murder plot. In this movie there is a completely different Doctor Xavier (Humphrey Bogart’s character, whose first name is Maurice in the film but Marshall in the credits). Bogart’s Doctor Xavier is identified as Quesne (rhymes with “Cain,” get it?), and since he clearly isn’t Lionel Atwil’s Doctor Xavier, the title must be referring to Bogart’s “return” from the dead.
*. Bogart’s Dr. Xavier was executed for conducting an experiment to see how long he could starve a child before it died. Which, leaving aside any ethical questions, doesn’t sound like a very brilliant experiment. Nevertheless, Doctor Flegg thinks he was a genius and that his execution made him a “martyr to science.”

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*. For all his grotesque appearance and evil history, Bogart makes Quesne somewhat sympathetic. Like Frankenstein’s monster, he didn’t ask to be brought back to life, and he seems at times genuinely down about what he has to do to stay alive. Note his pained expression in the window as he listens to Flegg give him up. How can you not feel sorry for him?
*. Originally it was planned as a sequel: in Technicolor, directed by Michael Curtiz again, and starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (as Quesne and Flegg respectively). Then it was downgraded, considerably.
*. Today we have a system of four blood types (A, B, AB, and O). In 1939 was there a system of four blood types that were just given numbers? I haven’t been able to find out. Were the producers here just making this part up?

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*. When asked on the commentary if he researched any of the scientific details for the film, director Vincent Sherman laughs and says the prop man who dressed the lab set took care of that.
*. Sherman was 99 when he did the commentary, but sounds decades younger. He refers to the film as a “cornball” story that was made “for kids.”
*. Medical vampires are always a little more unnerving than the fanged variety. Having teeth in your neck is one thing, but a needle in your arm and some tubing draining your blood away is something else. And this is a trope with a long history in horror films. The mad doctor in Dreyer’s Vampyr, for example, has his own creepy transfusion kit.
*. That’s an awfully obliging cab driver Quesne has for the final chase. Is he a confederate? It’s not clear, but then the whole ending seems awkwardly jammed on.
*. This is a very minor, and very clunky, B-picture from Warner Brothers. Its only interest today is in Bogart’s one-off appearance in a horror film. It’s not a film that’s necessary to see once, and you’ll probably not want to see it again.

Doctor X (1932)

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*. That most famous of all scream queens, Fay Wray, introduces herself with a scream, her first in a horror film (King Kong was a year away). But why does she scream?
*. She immediately tells her father that she came into the library “just to say good night to you.” Then the very next thing she does, just a few seconds later, is to ask him why he’s in the library. Huh? Why would she be frightened by finding him there, even if he was in the semi-dark (obviously it wasn’t fully dark because he was looking for something) when she went there to find him?
*. Strangely enough, this scene is repeated nearer the end when Joanne (Wray’s character) again goes looking for her father, finds him inspecting Rowitz’s body, and . . . screams. Perhaps there’s just something about her father that frightens her.
*. Yes, that’s beautiful two-colour Technicolor washing the screen in a diseased-looking hue dominated by browns and greens. I love it. I love looking at all the early colour films. There’s something both authentic and otherworldly about them, even in films (like this one) where not a lot is made of it.

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*. The story, however, is a spectacular mess, which is a bit surprising given that it’s based on a stage play (something that usually suggests a minimal level of coherence).
*. Things just don’t hold together well. This was a romantic comedy-thriller, with the three elements failing to gel. In particular, the romance and comedy come courtesy of the unbelievable attraction between Joanne and reporter Lee Taylor (Lee Tracy, in what was a recurring role). There’s never a hint of chemistry between these two, and Tracy’s snappy newsman patter isn’t funny or smart at all. His hand buzzer is juvenile, and if they played the gag where he backs into something and scares himself one more time I was going to yell at the screen. He does it two or three times in the same room!

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*. The horror-mystery part, however, is pretty interesting. Cannibalism! Well, not quite. The Moon Killer isn’t someone who accidentally acquired a taste for human flesh, but rather seems to be partially motivated by altruistic reasons. “I’ll make a crippled world whole again,” he declares. We may doubt him, but then when he says this he has no reason to lie. Of course, he is considering the ends and not the means.

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*. Pauline Kael: “The director, Michael Curtiz, plays things too straight; he doesn’t have the perverse comic sense of a James Whale.” Well, few directors at the time did. But point taken. Curtiz is known as the source of many funny anecdotes but doesn’t seem to have had much of a sense of humour himself. And this was a comedy. Not a good match.
*. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Xavier pronounced Ecks-ah-vee-yay before. Is that supposed to be French? It’s not consistently pronounced any one particular way in the film, which may have been intentional but was more likely the result of the different actors not being on the same page (as hard as that may be to believe). Even Scott MacQueen pronounces it different ways on the commentary.
*. Unlike Professor X from the X-Men, whose name is also Xavier, I’m not sure if Doctor Xavier here is meant to be the Doctor X of the title. Doctor X may just mean the mystery doctor who is committing the crimes. But then calling the lead Xavier just confuses things needlessly, doesn’t it?
*. The rest of the cast are a well-introduced set of weirdos. I’m particularly fond of Dr. Haines. He’s such a perv with his naughty magazines and his understandable desire to see a threatened and underdressed Fay Wray perform as the victim.

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*. I wonder what the first film was to do a series of quick cuts of close-ups of a gallery of reaction shots from possibly guilty faces. It’s a cliché now, but it’s still quite effective here, and even humorous the third or fourth time around.

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*. The plot is jaw-dropping nonsense. I guess Dr. Xavier has seen Hamlet a few too many times, as he wants to borrow the idea of the play-within-a-play being used to catch the conscience of the killer with an elaborate re-staging of his crime (complete with waxwork displays of all his victims). Only this time the guilty heart will reveal itself through science.
*. And what science! MacQueen notes the “embarrassing pseudoscientific gobbledygook” Lionel Atwill has to spout and it really is so good I’ll give it you in full here: “Gentlemen, I am now turning on the 100-milliampere, high-frequency coil. Your pulses are connected with the magnetic rotators, and each variation of your heartbeat reaction is amplified 4,000 times. The rotor of the electrostatic machine is connected in multiple series with a bank of glass-plate condensers, and the discharge causes irradiations to the thermal tubes, which, in turn, indicate your increased pulse rate and nerve reactions.” A killer may be able to pass as normal, but he can’t conceal his insanity “from the eyes of the radio sensitivity”!
*. Alas, even a plan as well-thought-out as this fails in spectacular fashion as the killer just turns out the lights and murders one of the innocent doctors (rather needlessly, since the experiment had just demonstrated that the victim was in fact the killer!).
*. But if at first you don’t succeed, try again! Why waste such a wonderful set? Next time we’ll handcuff the suspects to their chairs. Except for Wells. Isn’t that perhaps dangerous, trusting Wells? Not at all, since he couldn’t be the murderer as he only has one hand! Dr. Duke may be a much older man, in a wheelchair, but he’s more suspicious.
*. And anyway, Dr. Xavier has made provision for Dr. Wells being the killer. Otto will lock the manor doors when the experiment starts so no one can get in. That will stop Wells from trying anything!
*. This leads to what may be one of the most unintentionally funny scenes in any horror film. Though I’m still not sure how unintentional the humour was. Fay Wray is presented as the sacrificial victim and the killer comes out to dispatch her while the assembled audience of scientists can only hop about yelling at her to “fight back!” and “run!”
*. Now here’s a question: why doesn’t Wray run or fight back? She isn’t drugged, or tied down. But she does absolutely nothing!
*. The finale is pretty impressive, what with the killer being turned into a human torch and then being thrown out the window and falling to his death. But when Tracy says he got his throwing skill from his time spent as a first baseman tossing “that old peg over to third,” the screenwriters must be confused. A first baseman rarely throws all the way over to third. The old peg would be a third baseman throwing over to first, a far more common throw.

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*. The Moon Killer’s transformation into a fish-lipped conehead by way of “synthetic flesh” is creepy and all, but as MacQueen asks, why is he doing it? Does he like wearing such an elaborate mask? And what is it about the moon that inspires him?
*. For some reason I couldn’t help thinking of the scene where the guy turns himself into a jellyfish monster in Sting of Death. But I’m sure there was no question of influence there.
*. So the love story and comic elements don’t work at all, the mystery is contrived and the science ridiculous. The horror is just over-the-top enough to be both grotesque and funny, and the colour is a delight. It may not be a movie to come back to much, but it is a novelty item worth experiencing.

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Triumph of the Will (1935)

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*. Hitler was already Reich chancellor when, after the death of Hindenburg, he became Reich president as well. He was now simply the Leader, a radical point that this movie was made to both announce and promote. This film was “commissioned by order of the Fuhrer.” No name, or even official title, necessary.
*. That meant everything. One people, one Reich, one leader. As Rudolf Hess shouts at the end (they are the final lines we hear before the closing anthem): “The party is Hitler! But Hitler is Germany, and Germany is Hitler!”
*. This is a record of the 1934 sixth annual Nazi party rally at Nuremberg. The year before, Leni Riefenstahl had made a record of the fifth party rally, titled The Victory of Faith. It was basically a dry run for this film, a way of showing Hitler what might be done along these lines. But also a lot had changed in a year.
*. In particular, in 1933 Hitler had been paired with the head of the SA (the stormtroopers, or brownshirts), Ernst Röhm. Röhm, along with much of the SA hierarchy, had been purged in the Night of the Long Knives, and for obvious reasons Hitler wanted them erased from the historical record. Hence, a new movie, with an overriding message of party unity.

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*. The SA are, however, still central. Their new commander, Viktor Lutze, is prominently displayed throughout, and both he and Hitler make speeches about how old wounds have been healed. The events of the previous year are silent subtext to all this, never directly referenced or referred to beyond mention of a “dark shadow” that had passed over the movement.
*. Continuing the film chronicle: the army wasn’t happy with their brief appearance here so Riefenstahl had to make another movie, Day of Freedom, featuring the troops. Despite all the uniforms on display in Triumph of the Will, what you’re seeing are party members and members of paramilitary civilian organizations, not soldiers.
*. The opening is famous, seeming to be located in a city of clouds, an aerial landscape that might suggest Valhalla. Does the shadow of the plane over the old city of Nuremberg also seem like Mephistopheles spreading his wings over the town in Murnau’s Faust? Well, not consciously.
*. Roger Ebert: “It is a terrible film, paralyzingly dull, simpleminded, overlong, and not even ‘manipulative,’ because it is too clumsy to manipulate anyone but a true believer.”
*. I don’t agree. Ebert is particularly put off by the fact that — unlike the film that he chooses for comparison, Woodstock — “Riefenstahl’s camera is oblivious to one of the most fascinating aspects of the Nuremberg rally, which is how it was organized.” In part this is forgetfulness on Ebert’s part (he asks, for example, “how did the thousands eat,” but mass food preparation and serving is shown in the Hitler Youth camp), but such neglect was also a creative decision. In The Victory of Faith you do see the stands being constructed before the arrival of Hitler, the preparation of the ground. But I don’t think Riefenstahl (or Hitler) wanted that in the final cut. The rally is a giant Wizard of Oz production: if you see the little old man behind the curtain working the lights and the bellows to make all the effects then those effects are ruined.
*. That said, I am curious about how much overtime the workers at the flag factories got producing all the swastikas that get carried around here. How many sheets had to get sewn together to make those giant banners?

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*. The “sea of flags” effect, by the way, was Albert Speer’s idea. He should have got a production design credit for this film, as the look of the Nuremberg rallies was all his inspiration. But he isn’t even here in a cameo.
*. While I don’t agree with Ebert about the movie being dull, I find a great deal of boredom in it. I think this can only be fully appreciated by someone who has some experience with military drill, and the excruciating dullness of spending long periods of time “marching up and down the square” and, even worse, standing at ease in formation.

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*. Those massed phalanxes of stormtroopers sure look pretty, but they must have been standing out there for hours just so Riefenstahl could get her shots. God that must have been painful.
*. I wonder if sheer boredom was behind a lot of the cheering and waving the Nazi salute. At times it almost looks like the crowds are doing an early version of “the wave” to keep themselves occupied.
*. It’s a wonderful job of editing. I doubt there’s a single cutaway to a reaction shot that actually matches up with anything said by any of the speakers. I think Riefenstahl just used generic shots of people saluting and cheering in the same way television studios use a laugh track on a sitcom, as a way of reinforcing the mood. But it works.
*. I also like the editing in the speeches. They were probably quite dull, but as we get them here they’re little more than sound bites. Even Hitler’s final address, which I think may be presented in its entirety, is only a few minutes. Riefenstahl does keep things moving.
*. The only really boring part of the movie for me is the parade, which unfortunately comes near the end. I guess it would have been a slight to leave anyone out, so we have to watch as everyone marches past. In rather poor formation, I might add.

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*. We can give Hitler credit for at least one thing: killing the toothbrush (or, as it has come to be known, “Hitler”) moustache. This wasn’t a very fashionable scrap of facial hair even at the time, though we see several people here sporting them, perhaps in imitation of their boss. Hitler thought it offset his long and pointed nose, but I think it still looks awful. Hitler also wore a slightly bushier variation than regular, which makes it even worse. Oddly enough, the only film stars I can think of to sport one were comedians: Chaplin and Hitler’s almost exact contemporary Oliver Hardy. I guess it always seemed somewhat pompous and funny.

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*. What kind of salute is Hitler giving in response to the outthrust arm of the Nazi “hail” motion? It just looks like a casual, even lazy, backward flip of his hand.
*. While the theme of the rally is party unity, and it’s true that the masses of people tend to become geometric shapes on the ground, it’s not true that there is no personality on display. In a manner reminiscent of Eisenstein, Riefenstahl is always cutting between the crowd and the individual, juxtaposing character portraits with group formations.
*. Take two examples. In the first, the individual women in the crowd when Hitler arrives. They aren’t just excited but aroused, in a couple of instances even licking their lips. This Fuhrer is a sexy beast.

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*. That attraction is underlined by the physically magnetic effect he seems to have on the crowd (again, an effect achieved wholly through editing). We see people standing on tiptoe, climbing poles and buildings, getting up on shoulders, hanging out of windows, looking through binoculars and holding cameras over their heads, straining, always straining, to see over the crowd, to see a show that we in the theatre audience have the best seat in the house for.
*. A second example of individual portraiture: On stage during Hitler’s final speech, Hess looks on with rapt adoration while Goebbels is clearly taking mental notes from someone he considers to be the master. Julius Streicher, arms curiously akimbo while seated, looks like a gorilla, blinking and nodding his head as though having trouble following along. Goering is the only one who appears thoroughly bored (as I suspect he was). He can’t wait to get off the stage and head to the banquet hall.

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*. What about Hitler as orator? Today he’s easily derided as foolish looking, but if you watch him here with an open mind you can see what appealed to people. He could emote, he could rhetorically pluck the strings of an audience’s feeling. Was it all an act? Historians still debate his authenticity. He was certainly a performer on stage, one who practiced the art of public speaking tirelessly. But I think he took his calling seriously.

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*. It’s sometimes said that Hitler wouldn’t have been successful in the television era, but I’m not so sure. He wouldn’t be a successful politician in our era, to be sure, but that’s because of other shifts in style (I leave aside the content of his message). I think a movie like Triumph of the Will makes it clear that he understood how the new medium of film could be used to shape and package a message. Indeed he understood this better than Goebbels, who didn’t get along well with Riefenstahl and didn’t much care for her movie.
*. So is it a great movie? I think Riefenstahl does a great job making something out of some pretty dull material. You just have to compare this film to The Victory of Faith or Day of Freedom to see what she could do when inspired. In those movies she was only doing a job, providing a record of the events. Triumph of the Will, despite her protests to the contrary, is a crafted work of manipulation from beginning to end.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)

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*. That’s Leslie Banks as Bob Lawrence and Edna Best as his wife Jill. You may know Banks from The Most Dangerous Game and Henry V. He’s the one who looks like a loaf of bread. You probably don’t know Best. You almost certainly don’t care about either of them here. This movie belongs to Peter Lorre.
*. It was Lorre’s first English film, and despite being shaky with the language Hitchcock saw what he wanted: an unsettling mixture of nastiness and vulnerability. Where had we seen such an insouciant, jokey killer before this? Lorre’s Abbott must be among the first.
*. It’s also considered by some to be the first Hitchcock film. At least that’s how he described it (though he said the same thing about The Lodger). More precisely, he called it “the real start of my career.” In the words of Guillermo del Toro, it’s the film where Hitchcock “first births himself.”
*. What does this mean? In terms of genre: a suspense thriller with lots of comic moments. In terms of theme: the innocent man caught up in a web of villainous intrigue. In terms of structure: a near total indifference to plot so that the story progresses through a series of set-piece sequences.

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*. Pauline Kael complained that “Hitchcock seems sloppily unconcerned about the unconvincing material in between the tricks and jokes (a fault that persisted in the later, stodgier version, he he made in 1955).” But surely this was a fault that characterized Hitchcock’s entire career. Few of his film are convincing in terms of their general plot. The plot is nonsense, just an excuse to move us from the dentist, to the temple of the sun worshippers, to the Royal Albert Hall, to the climactic siege.
*. I think this is one of the things that makes Hitchcock such an attractive figure for critics to write about. It’s almost like there aren’t any individual stories being told, but just one undifferentiated oeuvre where these climaxes can be discussed independently, or only in relation to “Hitchcock” in general: the shower scene, the crop duster scene, the Royal Albert Hall scene, etc.
*. Yes, Bob and Edna are decent people in over their heads. But the flipside of this Hitchcock theme is also in play, as it usually is: ordinary, decent-seeming people who are actually evil.
*. The temple of the sun worshippers is the best example. They seem like a bunch of harmless eccentrics, not a gang of thugs. But then a sweet little old lady sticks a pistol in Bob’s back when he tries to leave. And it’s noteworthy that when he escapes and finds a policeman, the cop takes the word of Lorre and his “Nurse” over that of Clive. You know you’re failing a normalcy test badly when those two weirdos are more convincing as upstanding, law-abiding citizens than you are.
*. In the script, the character of Abbott was originally described as “an elderly, genial Englishman.” This would have reinforced the theme of villainy concealed beneath a “normal” exterior. But Lorre introduced a different note altogether. As if he wasn’t suspicious enough already, his appearance is enhanced with that long scar and a crazy punk stripe in his hair.
*. I take it, by the way, that the cut over Bob’s eye after the fight is meant to echo Abbott’s scar. They are blood brothers now, but fighting on opposite sides.
*. Is it so surprising that Clive can’t convince the policeman of what’s going on in the temple? Who is Clive anyway? He may be a figure of fun, what with his blank mind and thing for playing with toy trains, but he’s still creepy. And what is his relation to the Lawrences? Indeed, what is with the Lawrences marriage? Is it “open”? Who is Louis Bernard? Even little Betty seems to sense the ambiguity there, calling him “Uncle” (because “you’re just like an uncle, aren’t you?”) and insisting how much her mother likes him.

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*. Criterion did a nice job restoring this film, as they often do. Perhaps too good? After Bob and Jill kiss in one scene you can clearly see a strand of saliva hanging between their lips. I didn’t need to see that!
*. I wonder if audiences have changed, or if Hitchcock overestimated our ability to register subtle cues. Example: I didn’t pick up on the significance of Ramon’s slick hair or Abbott’s musical pocket watch until second and third viewings. These cues meant nothing to me the first time I saw the film.
*. I also thought it inadequate to just play a few seconds of music on the phonograph to give Ramon (and the audience) the cue for the assassination. This doesn’t serve its intended purpose because there isn’t enough of the music, and it isn’t memorable enough, to build suspense. In the Albert Hall scene we’re only going off of visual cues (the gun barrel extending past the curtain, the cymbals getting ready to be struck), not musical cues. Hitch in his Truffaut interview seems to have thought that he had given enough of a musical cue but he had not. He resolved to do more in the remake.
*. I feel much the same way about the use of music in The Lady Vanishes, where I didn’t recognize the code tune in its various renditions. But perhaps I’m just not very musical.
*. The Rules of the Game is often held up, on Renoir’s word, as a portrait of a society “dancing on a volcano.” In fact, it seems to me that Hitchcock in the ’30s was more in tune with the anxieties of the day. This is obvious in the political message his films have, with German spies and the threat of war looming (Gibson draws in the parallel of the attempt to assassinate Ropa with Sarajevo in 1914), but it’s also there in that general sense of uncertainty and bubbling danger, of innocent people caught up in a vortex.

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*. What is the “thin crust” (John Buchan) of civilization that holds us over the abyss? What is it that keeps us from falling off the ledge of the building (in our pyjamas)? The amibivalence in Hitchcock’s answer is what I find most interesting about his work.
*. The short answer would be a respect for order, a recognition of the proper forms. But the police are . . . the police. They represent authority, but they’re not to be trusted. And British respectability and keeping up appearances isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either. Even Charters and Caldicott aren’t all Charters and Caldicott. Furthermore, as we’ve already seen, what seems decent and respectable is often only a dangerous facade.
*. That British sense of aplomb under pressure can be both annoying and dangerous. It’s akin to the kind of thing Monty Python would send up in The Meaning of Life: the stiff upper lip as sometimes comic, sometimes obnoxious, obtuseness.
*. Or perhaps it’s not British aplomb so much as a class thing. Notice how elegantly Louis Benard (who was not originally supposed to be French) dies at the beginning. Why, he barely notices at first that a high-powered rifle has shot him in the chest. That blood stain will likely ruin his shirt.
*. But isn’t this the anxiety behind every suspense film? Where are safety and security to be found? In Hitchcock there’s nothing we can be sure of.

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