The Lady Vanishes (1938)

Strangers on a Train

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Lady Vanishes is often imitated but never equaled. Many movies have done the “person vanishes but their accomplice finds out they apparently never existed” plot; but never has it been done as immaculately as The Lady Vanishes. Likewise, the train is the perfect cinematic device; there are an infinite amount of possibilities for scenarios based on trains and Hitchcock sure took advantage of this throughout his career.

The Lady Vanishes is a movie with a great sense of adventure to it, traveling through the picturesque mountains of a politically unstable Europe. It’s never identified what country the movie is set in, only that is “one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners”, letting the viewer’s imagination fill in the blanks. I also love the charming miniature of the train station and hotel in the opening, making no attempt to disguise that is it just that, complete with little moving figures and a car driving with no one in it.

Once the lady vanishes, is it a head-scratcher, leaving me to hope this better have a dam good outcome and not cop out. The intensity ramps up to crazy levels as the mystery deepens with the atmosphere created by the train sound effects and the impending claustrophobia increases. On further viewings all the elements of the mystery make sense; the couple lying to avoid scandal, the cricket fans lying so they won’t be late and the relevance of the serenading man, genius! My favourite scene in the move is the sequence in the cargo bay in which Redgrave and Lockwood investigate magic props and start doing impressions; it’s such a fun scene to watch.

The film’s first act in the hotel could be a movie by itself; a sort of screwball comedy set in a hotel full of characters slightly off their rocker. Michael Redgrave reminds me and even looks like Errol Flynn here. Playing an adventurous free spirit and a character who could have come right out of a screwball comedy as evident by the manner in which he infiltrates Margaret Lockwood’s room, creating a ruckus in order to “put on record for the benefit of mankind one of the lost folk dances of central Europe”. Lockwood herself also plays an adventurous, free spirit (“been everywhere and done everything”), yet it takes the two of them some time to realise they have more in common with each other than they think.

The two English gentlemen who talk about nothing but cricket, on the other hand, showcase the British turning a blind eye to the spread of fascism in Europe. They are the only two who would stand to another country’s so-called national anthem and dismiss a newspaper article on England being on the brink of war as sensationalism. On a lighter-hearted note, they even discuss how baseball is referred to as rounders in the UK in a still relevant joke (“Nothing but baseball you know. We used to call it rounders, children play it with a rubber ball and a stick”). Of course, it wouldn’t be an unashamedly British movie if someone did mention tea (“What you need if a good strong cup of tea”).

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Dark Passage (1947)

The Man With Bogart’s Face

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Dark Passage is one of the more experimental movies of Hollywood’s golden age with the majority of the film’s first third being filmed from the first person point of view of Humphrey Bogart’s character. I never thought a black & white movie from the 1940’s would remind me of a modern video game. I would like to see more films which experiment with this point of view style. MGM’s Lady In the Lake (also released in 1947) was filmed in POV for the entire film which the studio promoted by claiming the POV style was the most revolutionary style of film since the introduction of the talkies. Nope, it didn’t catch on. The use of POV took me off guard at first as I wanted to watch some Bogart but I did not get to see him on screen. Bogart’s distinctive voice alone though helps carry the picture, thanks in part to his many witty remarks. We’re then given a section of the movie in which Bogart doesn’t talk and is wrapped in bandages looking like a horror movie character (these scenes also make me squeamish). Considering we have to wait a whole hour until we finally see and hear Bogart in his entirely makes Dark Passage nothing short of a daring role.

For the plot, you do need to suspend your disbelief at the number of highly improbable coincidences. Irene (Bacall) just happens to be out painting near San Quentin on the day Vincent Parry (Bogart), the man she has an obsession with escapes and she knows where to find him. Oh, and she also happens to be friends with Madge (Agnes Moorehead) who gave false testimony in court against Parry that he murdered his wife.  I find it is easy however to just roll along with the ridiculous plot as the movie plays out like a dream, culminating in the satisfaction of seeing Bogart get his revenge on Agnes Moorehead (a useless old bag and a real love to hate character) and seeing these two characters getting their happily ever after together in South America. One minor complaint I have is the reveal of Frank Parry’s face on the newspaper, prior to getting plastic surgery; because the character doesn’t actually have Bogart’s face, I would have preferred the mystery of not knowing what he looks like. Also, a plastic surgeon who can give you the face of Humphrey Bogart? Someone should have told Woody Allen that in Play It Again Sam. Dark Passage in part sees the return of gangster Bogart but still has the romantic elements of his on-screen persona which he developed after achieving stardom. Right from the very beginning, we’re in classic gangster territory, a prisoner escaping from San Quentin, the type of setting not seen in a Bogart film since High Sierra. The on-location filming in San Francisco also really adds to the film, giving you a sense of the world the movie inhabits and Irene’s apartment with the two floors and the art deco designs – I want it!

I once said ‘All Through the Night’ was the most Hitchcockian film Bogart starred in but Dark Passage wouldn’t be far behind it. We get the innocent man falsely accused on the run while trying to prove his innocence. The focusing on landmarks (the Golden Gate Bridge), while the San Francisco setting has some Vertigo vibes. The trippy plastic surgery sequence feels reminiscent of the Salvador Dali dream sequence in Spellbound; while Madge’s death rings a bell of the character death shots in Vertigo in which someone falls from a great distance.

When attempting to review a movie, I can’t always predict how much I will have to say about it. Occasionally though you get movies like Dark Passage, which have layers and layers of fascinating details worth talking about. Dark Passage is my favourite Bogart & Bacall film, although to be honest, I was never a huge fan of their partnership. To Have and Have Not bored me and The Big Sleep was, well, a big sleep. Plus I never fully got the appeal of Lauren Bacall; she never struck me as a massively interesting screen presence.  I find Bacall plays a much more interesting character than in the previous two Bogie & Bacall pairings. Not a vamp but a lonely single woman who purses painting as a hobby.  During the first kiss between Bogart and Bacall, I had the reaction of “Ok, now I’m getting it”.

Gambit (1966)

Expectation/Reality

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Like the other notable twist-laden Michael Caine movie Sleuth I can’t say much about Gambit without spoiling it. During the first 25 minutes, I was doubting if I was even going to enjoy the film. The characters appeared to be forgettable and two dimensional. Michael Caine outwits everyone but in an uninteresting manner while Shirley MacLaine never speaks nor shows any emotion or vulnerability with Herbert Lom plays an unimaginative caricature of a reclusive, eccentric millionaire. Like Sleuth on first viewing I thought that film was making a mistake during a certain section; with Gambit I felt the same way about the first section of the movie.

However, when it is revealed these first 25 minutes are just the idealised scenario for a heist played out in Michael Caine’s head I had the biggest smile on my face and the reaction of “You clever bastards!”. All of a sudden this seemingly boring film became fascinating with the scenario I had just seen played out now occurring again with a welcome sense of realism and with interesting, flawed characters, with much of the humour stemming from the differences between fact and fiction. It reminded of that popular internet meme ‘expectation/reality’ and came off to me like a satire of sorts on unimaginative writing and characters. Watching the film a second time I can now spot the moment of foreshadowing such as Michael Caine saying to his accomplice “Now pay close attention”. Of course, it wouldn’t be a heist movie without suspense and does the third act deliver, full of nail-biting moments and clever solutions.

Released in 1966 just prior to the rise of the New Hollywood movement, Gambit sees the final days of that distinctive old Hollywood glamour. Gambit is a very exotic movie at that with Shirley MacLaine being presented in the image of a goddess throughout and even her more common looking attire during the heist at the end is exceedingly stylish. Plus who can look more dapper as a cat burglar than Michael Caine? The back and forth between Caine and MacLaine is pure heaven. There are few other actresses with as playful an on-screen persona as Shirley MacLaine while Caine gets annoyed by her giddy, childlike attitude. I don’t care how many films I see which contain the “they hate each other but secretly love each other” dynamic, as long as it’s between a screen pairing with superb chemistry then I’ll never tire of seeing it.

The Prize (1963)

A Different Kind of Stockholm Syndrome

The Prize is my second favourite Hitchcock film he didn’t direct (my favourite being 1941’s All Through the Night). It’s not instantly engaging from the start as there is a lot of setting up to do but becomes more and more tense as the film progresses. In classic Hitchcock fashion, once the mystery kicks in your left scratching your head wondering if the protagonist just paranoid or is something fishy really going on.

I consider The Prize one of Paul Newman’s best films, giving him the opportunity to show off his not often exposed comedic chops. Newman is one of few select actors in which I can ask the question, “honestly, who doesn’t like Paul Newman?”; does there exist a more likable screen presence?  Likewise, Edward G. Robinson’s role is reminiscent of his part in The Whole Town’s Talking, playing a dual role of characters identical in appearance but with polar opposite personalities; while the hotel setting rings a bell of MGM’s own Grand Hotel some 31 years prior. plus when you set your movie in Sweden it seems inevitable that someone will mention Greta Garbo along the way. Hitchcock himself also never fully took advantage of the cold war. Torn Curtain, although I do think is underrated, is imperfect while Topaz is one of his dullest outings. It’s satisfying to see a superb Hitchcockian thriller with a plot about West vs. East.

North By Northwest has the auction scene in which Cary Grant makes a fool of himself to get caught by the police in order to get away from the bad guys; The Prize has the same scene but ups the ante with having it taking place during a nudist meeting and of course naturally of all the countries in the world to a nudist meeting, where else but Sweden. The Prize is not quite Hitchcock’s greatest hits but it’s the closet a film comes to being so. There are other allusions to other Hitchcock films including The Lady Vanishes, Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, and Torn Curtain. Hang on, that one didn’t come until three years after this movie. Huh, was Hitchcock inspired by this Hitchcock clone/rip-off/ homage/whatever you want to call it. As far as imitations of someone else’s work goes it doesn’t get pulled off any better than this.

A Woman’s Face (1941)

Two-Faced Woman

A Woman’s Face is a trashy, pseudo-horror movie like film but one presented as an A-picture melodrama. I’ve watched A Woman’s Face five times as of writing this review and gets better every time I watch it. Within the last year, I’ve felt the motivation to watch the film three times, something which is almost unheard of for me; this movie is that good. I’ve now decided, screw it, this is my favourite Joan Crawford film and considering there’s tough competition from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Mildred Pierce and The Women, that’s saying a lot.

Every major cast member in A Woman’s Face is superb. I know that sounds like a generalization but it’s true. Firstly there’s Conrad Veidt as Torsten Barring. I adore every second this man is on screen; he’s just so delightfully sinister but in the most absorbingly charming manner – I’m swept off my feet by his presence. I can completely buy into the romance he shares with Anna Holm (Crawford) because he looks past her facial disfigurement and is unbothered by it. Melvyn Douglas is the other great charmer of the cast, whom I’ve yet to see paired with an actress who he didn’t share great chemistry. Ossa Massen, Reginald Owen, Albert Bassermann, Marjorie Main (unrecognisable here) and Donald Meek are also all equally memorable and stand in the strong characterisations of their roles. Likewise on re-watching look out for the moments of foreshadowing (“You love children? I loathe them”).

Then there’s Crawford herself in a once in a lifetime role as a facially disfigured woman, a part few actresses would be prepared to play. Her character of Anna Holm only engages in deceitful acts because of society’s mistreatment of her since childhood but is otherwise good at heart. Anna tries to make the best for herself and doesn’t dwell into a victimhood complex (“I don’t care for pity ether”); she runs her own tavern, pursues different talents and less virtuously is involved in criminality. Regardless throughout the film my heart pours out for the poor woman and yet even with the disfigurement I still find Crawford to be incredibly beautiful in this film, nor does the disfigurement ever take away from the asset that is her stunning body. If anything the moment in which Anna returns from a shopping trip and is wearing a very excessive blouse to take attention away from her face is the one moment in the film in which her character comes off to me as pathetic sight.

A Woman’s Face is one of the few thrillers George Cukor directed with echoes of Hitchcock throughout, such as the shots of the smelter plant and a waterfall in the background (similar to the scenery in films such as Foreign Correspondent), to the film’s suspenseful scenes such as that atop the cable car. This sequence itself is absent of any music, simply allowing the sound of the nearby waterfall and the smelter plant increase the tension while the film’s climax, on the other hand, offers a sort of Ben-Hur on sleds finale. Since I consider this film far superior to Hitchcock’s thriller offering that year of Suspicion, Cukor out Hitchcocked Hitchcock. With Cukor being one of the great masters of his trade, the cinematography of A Woman’s Face is a feast for the eyes. Technically speaking, the scenes at the hospital and Anna’s subsequent unbandaging are my favourite part of the film. Along with A Woman’s Face and the 1934 medical drama Men In White, it makes me wonder if it’s just me or do medical interiors and apparatuses make for some of the best subjects to capture on film.

Being a remake of a Swedish film, there’s something somewhat unconventional about A Woman’s Face for a Hollywood film. The movie does manage to capture the essence of its Northern European setting (despite much of the cast supporting American accents) and offers a slice of Swedish culture with its dancing sequence.

I consider 1941 to be the greatest year in the history of cinema. The output of this single year is the jealous vain of entire decades and A Woman’s Face just adds to this. Melodrama seems to have a bad reputation for no good reason. Like many things, it can be done well and done poorly. A Woman’s Face represents the old Hollywood melodrama tailored to perfection.

Sleuth (1972)

It Was Only a Bloody Game

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I believe the title of Sleuth may be misleading. When I first approached it I wasn’t aware of the stage play it was based on and thought the film was going to be a standard “whodunit?” and thus wasn’t expecting much from it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Watching it I soon discovered it to be a different film entirely, a giant mind game, a battle of wits and a tale of revenge. I’ve never seen a film quite like Sleuth before. The exploits between Michael Caine and Laurence Oliver trying to outwit each other with the plot’s many twists, surprises and under the direction of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ (a master at handling dialogue) makes for a film that’s hard to forget.

Watching this film I quickly came to realize that Caine and Olivier may be the only two cast members throughout, which had me thinking if they could carry the film to the very end by themselves it will be nothing short of an acting marvel, so I was disappointed when the movie introduced what appeared to be a third cast member, Alec Cawthrone as Inspector Doppler; I felt the movie was making a mistake by doing so. That was until it turned out that Inspector Doppler was Michael Caine in disguise the whole time, yes, there’s no such actor as Alec Cawthrone, he was simply created for the film’s credits. I’m not sure how many people will be as perceptible as I was but the movie successfully fooled this viewer. On second viewing I can clearly see Caine through the disguise but I’ll always have the memory to cherish of being spellbound the first time round from seeing Caine taking off all that makeup, which itself makes up appreciate the art form. Sleuth actually has a fake cast list in the opening credits in an attempt to fool the audience; this includes three other nonexistent actors, one of which is named after the character Eve Channing from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ earlier film All About Eve. Up until the film’s very last scene in which police sirens and knocking on the door can be heard, I was on the edge of my seat hoping the movie would not introduce another cast member.

I’ve always liked Michael Caine but Sleuth greatly increased my respect for him, while also making me a fan Laurence Olivier; their ability to carry this film is nothing short of phenomenal. Milo Tindle is one of Caine’s more effeminate roles, a hairdresser who even takes joy in wearing a piece of women’s clothing at one point. Olivier, on the other hand, is the given the opportunity to have tons of fun with his role of Andrew Wyke, doing impressions and playing dress up with another grown man and with all those gadgets, gizmos and games everywhere, it’s always a pleasure to look into the background of Andrew Wyke’s manor. Likewise, the humor that comes from seeing a man being convinced that dressing as a clown is the way to go when doing a staged crime, has me laughing nonstop through the entire charade.

Rope (1948)

Is Murder an Art?

Rope is one of those rare movies which is totally engrossing within less than five minutes, no doubt in my top 5 films by the master himself. Hitchcock successfully recreates the theatrical experience for the big screen. The set of Rope looks a bit fake and washed out and even the colour cinematography has a washed out feel to it, this all being part of the charm of course. The actors strand in unnatural positions when talking, avoiding having their back facing the audience when speaking; unnatural for real life that is, normal for the warped reality of a stage play. Above all, the entire movie takes place in real time through a series of ten minute takes and all this happens while there is a dead body in the room.

The characters played by Farley Granger and John Doll, as well as their teacher (James Stewart), hold a Nazi-like ideology that murder is “an art a few superior beings should be allowed to practice”, rather than those such as say, people who are Harvard undergraduates. The character’s discussion on the justification for murder is chilling as they make it sound scarily convincing. Rope is based a true story from the 1920’s and adapted into a play in 1929 although it’s clear the movie is set during the period it was made due to the fashions and the mentioning of movie stars from the era. It does seem unlikely in the aftermath of the atrocities during the Second World War that people would be so openly discussing such fascist ideas which were more common in the United States during the 20’s and 30’s.

The movie is about homosexuality although I didn’t catch onto this. I’m not the best person when it comes to identifying gay characters unless they’re really gay (hey sisters!). I’ve heard criticism of Stewart being miscast in the role as he apparently doesn’t make a convincing gay character thus the homosexual love triangle from the play is not present in the film. Judging the film on its own merits however Rope is a major step in his evolution as an actor, away from his gawky roles he was known for up until this point. His breakdown at the end is one of the acting highlights of his career and gives me the chills watching it.

Double Indemnity (1944)

Flawless Film Making, Baby!

If there is a keyword I would describe Double Indemnity, its dialogue. Exposition is a very tricky line to cross; when done poorly it can come off as immensely frustrating but when done right it can be music to the ears, leaving me dying to hear more like I’m watching an engrossing documentary. Throughout Double Indemnity with the use of narration, Fred MacMurray will explain what’s clearly appearing in the frame but as nobody does narration quite like Billy Wilder. Instead of making Double Indemnity coming off as a movie which feels the need to dumb down and explain everything to the viewer, this expositional narration comes off a poetry, enhancing any scene in the film. Even with hearing noir dialogue parodied countless times, it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the movie.

I’ve generally never thought much of Fred MacMurray as an actor; he strikes me as serviceable but never an enigmatic screen presence. His role as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity is the one major exception in his career. This casting against type may be my favourite one-hit wonder performance ever; his uttering of the words “Baby” and “Hello Keyes” never gets old. When I first watched Double Indemnity I assumed MacMurray must have been an icon of film noir, turns out he was anything but. Barbara Stanwyck was a sexual siren in a number of her films, I’m not aware of what Stanwyck’s ideological or moral beliefs where but a number of her films are some of most sexually suggestive old Hollywood films I’ve seen. There is her pre-code work such as Baby Face but in the postcode era, she appeared in the code breakers Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve and yes, Double Indemnity. In her introduction scene as Phyllis Dietrichson, she is dressed in a titillating manner with her legs crossed while wearing a skirt, almost expecting her to pull off a Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Culminating this trio of actors at some of their greatest work is Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, the claims expert. When watching his performance I don’t feel like I’m watching someone playing a claims expert, I feel like I’m watching an actual claims expert. Double Indemnity offers an intriguing insight into the profession of the insurance salesman but like being a lawyer, I’m sure this is one job which Hollywood makes out to be more exciting than it actually is.

Like a number of films in the noir genre, the ending is revealed at the beginning of the movie, leaving me not wanting to know how the film ends but rather how the story and characters got to that point and boy, am I dying to know. For an example of one of the film’s suspenseful scenes, take the moment in which Phyllis arrives at Walter’s apartment to discover Keyes is also there. All within a single frame Phyllis is hiding behind the door with Walter trying to prop it open and Keyes in the background. When Keyes walks towards the door and there is a bump in the music score, it’s moments like these which get the blood rushing, yet they look so deceptively simple.

Why do Phyllis and Walter agree that honking a car horn three times a signal when that would easily draw attention? When a plot hole or nonsensical moment (Or Barbara Stanwyck’s wig) doesn’t bother me in the slightest, it’s a testament to how great a movie is: not affecting the movie’s heart racing, tearing the leather of the sofa’s armrest levels of suspense from start to finish. Why are so many people dismissive of old movies? Because they are corny and cheesy? Few other movies pose such an aurora of cool as Double Indemnity, baby!