Rififi (1955): The Best Of French Film Noir

by Paul Batters

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Without a doubt, one of the most important and brilliantly shaped exemplars of film noir is the French crime film Rififi (1955). Directed by Jules Dassin and drawn from the Auguste Le Breton’s same-titled novel, Rififi is a lesson in how to build tension, draw on detail to build and shape meaning and reaches deeper tropes in the futility of crime and even the stupidity of those who engage in criminal activity. What also makes Rififi stand out, is its’ cynicism and gritty immersion in the world of the gangster, with violence and brutality the hallmarks of that world.

Despite its’ being described as a French film, its’ director, Jules Dassin, was an American – blacklisted during the McCarthy Era and reviving his career in France. Dassin was a talented auteur who had already made his name with films such as Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948) and Night And The City (1950), respected films in the film noir canon. But he was also very adept at comedy with The Canterville Ghost (1944) and would also make another heist film with comedic strains in 1964’s Topkapi. Yet perhaps Rififi is his finest film; one with themes that run deep and cinematic techniques that stand strong in how good cinema is created and shaped, in terms of pacing, rhythm and sensibility to mis-en-scene. If the film were cynical, dark and eviscerating, then it would also reflect the experience of Dassin’s treatment at the hands of HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee).

 

The story is a heist film and despite the pre-existence of one my favourite films, Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), it is easy to see why Rififi is often called the daddy of all heist films. Set in Paris, the plot seems simple enough – a group of crooks aim to pull off the robbery of a jewellery store on the Rue de Rivolli. Yet the film takes the audience further out than what might be anticipated, as we not only are taken through the intricate and painstaking preparations for the job but also the unforgettable robbery scene and the final act where the protagonist faces the reality of the situation and where his code leads him to make some tough decisions.

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Tony “le Stephanois” (Jean Servais) is a newly released ex-con, who has just completed a five-year term for a fellow gangster named Jo “Le Suédois” (Carl Mohner). Tony is approached by Mario (Robert Manuel), who suggests they rob a jewelry store by crudely smashing the front window and grabbing the jewels. Naturally, Tony declines and seeks out his old girlfriend, Mado (Marie Sabouret). But the reunion turns sour when he discovers Mado has taken up with Grutter (Marcel Lupocivi), a nightclub owner and gangster, whom Tony is not so fond of. In his anger and hurt, he beats her, channeling five years of pent-up frustration. Going against his earlier better judgment, he re-considers Jo and Mario’s offer and agrees to rob the store but declares they will go further and rob the safe. Taking on the safe cracker, Cesar (played by Dassin himself under a pseudonym), the team is complete. The plan put in place is meticulously planned and ingenious in its’ conception. And this reviewer will leave it the audience to find out what the plan is.

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What follows is undoubtedly approximately 30 minutes of the most tense, perfectly constructed cinema ever made. As Roger Ebert noted, ‘the audience hears nothing but taps, breathing, some plaster falling into an umbrella used to catch it, some muffled coughs, and then, after the alarm is disabled, the screech of the drills used to cut into safe’. It is genius on the part of Dassin, who recognized the impact of not having the men talk as they are undertaking the robbery. The term ‘keeping the audience on the edge of their seats’ was certainly invented after viewing this scene. Interestingly enough, as a number of critics have pointed out, the scene becomes the centerpiece of the film, rather than the climax, reflecting Dassin using the heist to tell more about the men carrying out the crime than the crime itself. It is superb manipulation of the audience.

 

Needless to say, the third act will be played out with Tony facing greater difficulties than he anticipated. There won’t be any spoiler here!

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There is certainly a contrast, stylistically, with earlier films of Dassin’s, particularly Brute Force and Naked City, both of which maintain Hollywood’s stylized approach. However, Rififi feels far darker, far more rugged and as Alan Scherstuhl opines in the Village Voice, ‘throbs with his (Dassin’s) anger’. The violence, whilst not visually explicit, is certainly so from an emotional and psychological point of view. As murder is carried out, the camera moves to the face of the perpetrator and not the act of violence itself. Dassin wants us to see what manner of men these gangsters are. Tony and his gang are anti-heroes and the audience is breathless as they conduct the robbery, yet they draw us into the darkness and will not let us go so easily. Tony cuts a sad figure underneath the tough exterior; his sickly coughing a metaphor for a deeper sickness and his ability to carry out violence is also disquieting to say the least.

It would be far too easy to explain the film’s ruggedness on the meager budget. True, Dassin faced limitations but he was no maverick and had already proved that he was a skilled director who had worked on a number of strong productions. Interestingly, Jean Servais, the film’s star, had his own troubles for some time, struggling with alcoholism and seeing his career stumble. Dassin would also use the locales of Paris with sublime naturalness, bringing an even greater realism to the screen. Grim and gritty at times, Dassin also uses those locales to convey Tony’s isolation and desperation, in the streets of Paris.

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Cole Smithey in 2014 made an interesting observation about the key characters:

‘Rififi’s criminal anti-heroes are made up of outliers who, like Dassin, are struggling to squeak out a living in a foreign land. The gang members have names with an attribution that separates him from the local Parisian culture. Jo le Suedois (or “the Swede”) is the father of Tony’s godson, and the thief Tony went to jail to protect. Tony is referred to as “le Stéphanois,” an allusion to the Saint-Étienne region of eastern central France from which he hails…’ 

Smithey’s point is a poignant one – Dassin’s directorial vision sees the gangsters ultimately as outsiders to what constitutes a civilized society and walking down different streets with another set of rules in place. Break those rules and death may arrive at your door.

 

Upon its’ release, Rififi was heralded as a powerful film, remarked upon for its’ realism and tension. Legendary French film critic and director Francois Truffaut famously declared, “out of the worst crime novel I ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I’ve ever seen”. Contemporary critics seem to generally be in unison with Truffaut, with Sherilyn Connelly stating quite accurately, ‘…if elements of it (the heist film) seem overly familiar now, that’s only because they were done first here, and picked up by every heist film that followed’. Yet Rififi does more than set the tone and standard for the heist film – it also delves deep into the soul of humanity, looking into the aftermath of the heist with focus. The revelations shouldn’t shock us yet they do. The concept of honour amongst thieves is one we have seen time and time again fail to ring true. As one of the prime lessons of film noir, the audience sees the fatalism and futility in the desperate actions of the characters and their humanity is not only misguided but frail and weak as well.

Rififi would basically establish the sub-genre of the heist film and receive great praise on both sides of the Atlantic. Dassin must have felt vindicated as a director and there must have been some satisfaction when he received the award for Best Director at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival.

Chris Cabin in Slant Magazine beautifully described Rififi as being ‘soaked to the bone in dread’, which of course reflects the fatalism that so often permeates film noir. But it also reflects Dassin’s own sensibilities in the face of his own difficulties. The protagonist, Tony, is not unlike Dassin himself – holding to a particular belief and code, only to find that not everyone sees it that way and finding the rug pulled out from under him in the process.

But hey – isn’t that film noir?

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

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Dr Zhivago (1965): David Lean’s Masterpiece Of Love And Tragedy

by Paul Batters

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Unlike other forms of art, cinema is an art-form, which relies on an incredible diversity of talent and skills, both behind and in front of the camera and before, during and after any shooting occurs. Yet the cinematic vision on the big screen, which is experienced by the audience, is ultimately that of the director. Cinema has seen incredible directors work their craft and perhaps one of the most gifted was David Lean. His sense of cinematography and the human story within an historical context has seen him at the wheel of some of cinema’s greatest masterpieces including The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) and Lawrence Of Arabia (1962). Yet he brought Dickens to the screen with incredible sensitivity to the textual integrity of both Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948).

Yet Lean is also responsible for some of cinema’s most heart-breaking and forever memorable romantic films, with Brief Encounter (1945) ranking as one of the finest films depicting love unrealised. However, the film, which beautifully depicts this powerful theme, struggling against the historical realities of war and revolution, is 1965’s Dr. Zhivago and the focus of this review.

Drawn from Boris Pasternak’s novel, Dr Zhivago is a story told during the tragedy, turmoil and tumult of one of Russia’s (and perhaps the world’s) most significant turning points in modern history – the lead up to, events and aftermath of the Russian Revolution. Lean frames the narrative by telling the story through retrospect, with the voice of the storyteller belonging to KGB General Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness), the half-brother of the title character. As he tells the story, the audience follows the life of one Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), from his orphaned boyhood to his becoming a doctor and marrying his childhood sweetheart Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). But beneath Yuri’s medical coat lies the heart of a poet, which brings him fame and literary respect. Despite an ideal career in front of him with a solid bourgeois family life in place, Zhivago becomes entranced by Lara (Julie Christie), whom he discovers whilst assisting his mentor in treating her mother who has attempted suicide. He also crosses paths for the first time with Komarovsky (Rod Steiger), a political opportunist to whom Lara’s mother (and eventually Lara) will play the role of mistress.

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Despite these personal intrigues, Russia is on a path to revolution and the climate of discontent and proletariat zeal is personified by Pasha Antipov (Tom Courtney), Lara’s fiancé. His own political consciousness will take a turn to radicalism when a peaceful protest is brutally dealt with by Tsarist guards. By chance, Zhivago witnesses the protest and its’ aftermath and he even attempts to treat some of the victims, when warned off by the same guards who have committed the atrocity.

But Russia will face greater challenges when it is plunged into World War One and Zhivago goes to the frontline as a doctor to treat the wounded. Fate sees that Lara (now married to Pasha) joins his medical corps and as a nurse works closely with Zhivago. Meanwhile her now-husband Pasha goes missing in action during a battle, although she will initially not be aware of this. Love blooms for them but they remain true to their respective marriages and the circumstances of the war changes when the October Revolution occurs and the Bolsheviks seize power. With Russia no longer involved in the ‘imperialist war’, the two potential lovers must part and return home. Shariff channels the pain of separation as he watches Lara leave and his eyes well with tears.

Zhivago returns to his family and a much-changed Moscow. Despite the Bolsheviks being in power, civil war has broken out and will continue for the next three to four years. The situation is tenuous and the family struggle, to the point where Zhivago has to sneak out at night and break off fence palings for firewood. But he fortuitously meets his half-brother Yevgraf, who warns him that he needs to get out of Moscow, particularly because his poetry is seen as an affront to the Revolution. Zhivago is deeply hurt by this, his poet’s heart racked that the beauty of poetry should be seen in such a way. Along with his father-in-law Alexander (Ralph Richardson) and his family, they decide to go to their familial Gromeko estate in the Urals.

Yevgraf arranges their papers and a long train journey to the estate. The train ride is difficult and Zhivago sees the effects of the civil war on the countryside, witnessing burnt out villages and desperate people. They also hear of a general named Strelnikov, who is spoken of in near mythical tones, who has been routing ‘counter-revolutionaries’ with incredible success and extreme measures. The audience then discovers that Strelnikov is actually Pasha and during the journey, Zhivago will make the same discovery during a tense moment on the journey.

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But the family will make it to Gromeko and for a time, they live a safe, happy and quiet life, although the news of the Tsar’s execution shocks the family. But fate will take a crucial turn when Zhivago visits nearby Yuriaten and discovers that Lara is living there with her daughter. The reluctance, which held them back during the war, is forgone and their affair begins.

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At this point, this review will leave the reader to discover what follows, in consideration of those who have never experienced Dr Zhivago. And it is certainly a film that is an experience!

Lean shapes, as Kate Muir declared in The UK Times an ‘epic (that) seems too small a word for the sweeping ambition and romance of Dr Zhivago’. The historical context of the story has been criticised, particularly by Bosley Crowther for sentimentalising the Revolution yet the scenes in Moscow afterwards of the over-crowded apartments, people dying of starvation and typhus and the pathetic act of stealing firewood cancels out that criticism for me. With respect, the historical accuracy of the Revolution is not foremost in Lean’s mind (not that there are many glaring inaccuracies) but reflects on the impacts that history has on the individual. More importantly, being a film of romance, it declares that love is founded in all and any circumstances, even during terror and turmoil. The romance between Lara and Zhivago tries to withstand all the obstacles that stand in their way – firstly, propriety and responsibility and afterwards far greater dangers, which will threaten not only their relationship but their lives as well.

Omar Sharif brings the soul of the poet alive in his performance and Julie Christie was never more breathtaking as Lara. The emotion and desperation of their love is beautifully transcribed to the screen. But the other performances are particularly riveting as well. The likes of Alec Guinness as Yevgraf and Ralph Richardson as Alexander in part represent the ‘old guard’ of British stage and screen with their usual finesse. However, Tom Courtney is particularly solid as Pasha/Strelnikov and watching the seismic shift from idealistic revolutionary to a cold, ruthless general is interesting and one asks if more of this character development could have been forthcoming.

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However, Rod Steiger almost steals every scene he is in. Not only is Komarovsky political opportunist but a manipulator of the highest order. Steiger brings to the fore an incredible sense of the character, and whilst it is easy to despise his character, it is impossible not only to admire Steiger’s performance. Komarovsky is a fascinating character, whose sense of realism and understanding of life, cannot be refuted.

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One scene that never fails to arouse my admiration is when the family first board the train. They are confronted with a prisoner (Klaus Kinksi) who declares himself ‘forced labour’. There are almost no words to suggest the power of Kinksi in this moment when he declares himself the ‘only free man’. Kinksi declares ‘long live anarchy’ evoking the pre-revolutionary group of intellectuals and thinkers that were socialist in their hearts but did not support the direction the Bolsheviks took. If ever a cameo appearance dominated a moment in film, then Kinksi achieved it here:

What makes Dr Zhivago an intoxicating film is not only the beautiful photography and grand, sweeping scenarios but the attention to detail to reveal character and unfold the story is also touching – the tree branch tapping at a cold, frosted window during a winter storm, Zhivago watching the silent interchange between Lara and Pasha during a pivotal moment or Zhivago writing his poetry. But the big moments stand strong as well – the mass of deserters leaving the front, the peaceful march that becomes bloody and the vast expanses of the countryside.

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Certainly the film score by Maurice Jarre has almost taken on a life of its’ own. The film’s signature piece ‘Lara’s Theme’ is recognised almost anywhere, even if people have never seen the film. It has become a much-loved piece of music but has received criticism for its’ sentimentality, interestingly enough by Omar Sharif himself. Sharif has gone on record stating that he believed the music to be terribly sentimental and he has not been alone in this criticism.

Interestingly enough, Dr Zhivago received mixed reviews upon its’ initial release but would become a huge earner and a major competitor at the Academy Awards. Legendary critics such as Pauline Kael are not fans of the film describing Lean’s direction as ‘primitive’ and Roger Ebert called it ‘soppy’ whilst still noting Lean’s ‘elaborate sets, his infinite patience with nature and climates, and his meticulous art direction…’ Yet of directors such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick have noted the huge influence Lean has had on their own work. Spike Lee felt himself channeling Lean when shaping 1992’s Malcolm X, thinking of the very characteristics that Ebert saw as worthy of note.

James Powers in The Hollywood Reporter goes much further: ‘despite the grim and brooding background, Zhivago has a surging buoyant spirit that is unquenchable. Doctor Zhivago is more than a masterful motion picture; it is a life experience’. If I may re-use from an earlier mention I made regarding the film, Dr Zhivago highlights the tragedy of history and how it impacts on people and their lives. But it also reflects the tragedy and beauty of love, where the worst times in history throw people together, allows them to taste the joy of love and then cruelly rips it from them. Lean reaches into our hearts and while the charges of sentimentality may ring true to some degree, it is impossible not to be wholly taken by the experience.

This article has been submitted for the 2018 David Lean Movie Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please click on the following link for access to more articles for this blogathon – The 2018 David Lean Blogathon

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The 39 Steps (1935): Classic Hitchcock – One Man Against The World

by Paul Batters

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Richard Hannay: Beautiful, mysterious woman pursued by gunmen. Sounds like a spy story.
Annabella Smith: That’s exactly what it is. 

Cinema has seen some incredible directors – many of whom have had the term auteur added to their profile. There is no doubt that Alfred Hitchcock is one of cinema’s most influential auteurs – a director whose films remain as masterpieces. The ‘Master Of Suspense’ has been so influential that a number of film historians have given his films their own status as a genre; hence the ‘Hitchcock thriller’.

It becomes difficult to consider the quintessential Hitchcock film and and no less easier to compose a list of ‘must-see’ films. Which should be first viewed? After all, Hitchcock’s work spans an incredible period from the silent era into the 1970s, from British cinema into Hollywood, from black and white to full colour.

However, the film that sees the classic tropes and themes of the Hitchcock film first fully realised, is his 1935 British film The 39 Steps.

The story was drawn from the spy/adventure novel by John Buchan but the final script would look nothing like the book, seeing wholesale changes that suited Hitchcock’s vision, including elements of screwball, expanding Madeleine Carroll’s character into a starring role and introducing the classic Hitchcock plot device – the McGuffin. The film is also one of the first of a number of films that would examine a recurring theme in Hitchcock’s films – the innocent man on the run and against the world. It is this aspect of the film that this essay will focus on.

The superbly cast Robert Donat plays Richard Hannay, a Canadian visiting England, who is introduced to us as a member of a London music hall audience, watching the incredible powers of Mr Memory (Wylie Watson). Here, Hitchcock establishes the everyman hero, a character with which the audience can identify. Most importantly, the character of Richard Hannay becomes the vehicle by which we experience the story and Hitchcock establishes a character in which our faith is wholly placed. His innocence is beyond question and we identify with him, because of his individuality whilst still being outside the class system (despite the obvious accent) being declared a ‘gentleman’ in spite of his being Canadian. Additionally, as the film progresses, we never find anything about Hannay’s background and he remains a ‘mystery’ aside from what is learned as the story initially unfolds; he’s a Canadian visiting England, unmarried and not connected to anyone. 

Thus, through some subtle yet crucial masterstrokes, Hitchcock shapes the innocent man, who world is about to turn inside out and find himself pitted against the world around him. But it is also the panache and charisma of Robert Donat, that we want to identify with; much like Cary Grant in Hitchcock’s later films, again playing the innocent man on the run.

Mr Memory’s performance and the theme music accompanying his entrance is on the surface a seemingly just an introduction to the story. But it will be a crucial keystone to the structure of the mystery and as William Rothman points out in ‘Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze”’ ‘the poignancy of the film’s ending … requires that we be distracted from recollecting Mr Memory until Hannay himself remembers him’. As we, along with Hannay, enjoy the performance, it soon becomes interrupted by a fight but an even more frightening moment occurs when a gunshot sends everyone into a panic and out into the street. During the chaos, a woman becomes intertwined with Hannay in the crowd and when they reach the safety of the street, she asks to come home with him. The interaction is highly suggestive and Hannay seems happy to bring her home, quipping with incredible irony, ‘Well, it’s your funeral’. Unbeknownst to either of them, it will prove a dark and ominous statement.

The woman, who calls herself ‘Annabella Smith’ (Lucie Mannheim) is willing to exchange sexual favours for safety and upon returning to Hannay’s flat, her initial sensual overtones turn to nervousness at every noise. Whilst Hannay humours her and her ‘delusion’, to the point of cooking her something to eat as she begins telling her situation – of a government secret being taken out of the country by a spy, part of a group called the 39 Steps, and given to a foreign power.

Hannay plays along but the story becomes a reality and Annabella’s burden becomes his when she stumbles into his room with a knife in her back. And so the story begins, where Hannay is suddenly thrown into a nightmare. As William Hare illustrates in ‘Hitchcock And The Master of Suspense’, Hannay has two objectives; one, to stay alive in a rising tide of ruthless efforts to kill him because of what he came to know through sheer accident, and two, to learn all he can about the forces out to get him and resolve the mystery by turning the tables on his pursuers. Therein lies the predicament of the innocent man on the run, facing a world that does not believe his story and where there is no one to turn to for help.

What follows is a tense journey as Hannay uses the only clue he has – a map with a circle around the town of Alt-na-Shellach, a village in the Scottish Highlands, where he must track down the man who Annabella was speaking of before she was murdered. Hannay knows nothing of the man, except that he is missing the tip of his smallest finger.

The journey is fraught with tension and excitement, as well as some well-placed humour, as he travels by train to Scotland before traversing the moors. Hannay’s isolation and loneliness is perfectly captured by the camera in these sequences – the wide-open spaces leave him exposed with nowhere to hide, creating a sense of open-space claustrophobia. Always open to attack, Hannay from the moment his nightmare begins finds himself constantly solving problems on the fly. Every situation he faces has been placed as some sort of trap, which if not traversed will seal his doom. What makes it interesting is the solution that Hannay has to come up with. Very quickly, he realises that the truth won’t save him – Hannay needs to ‘play a role’ and invent some story to avoid capture by the authorities or his villainous pursuers. When fleeing his apartment, his truthful revelation to the milkman doing his rounds whilst asking for help is scoffed at. However, he quickly realises that like Annabella, he will need to assume identities in order to survive and he quickly invents a lascivious tale, which the milkman accepts as the truth. Hannay learns one of the key lessons to his survival.

His train journey also meets with desperate measures and fast thinking. By the time he reaches Scotland, the police are checking the train and his attempts to seek help from the beautiful Pamela (Madeleine Carroll) come to nothing. She gives him up but Hannay manages to escape in a dramatic and death-defying manner to make his way across the Moors.

Whilst not wishing to outline the story and spoil the fun for first time viewers, it is worth mentioning some important steps in the story. On his journey to Scotland, he stays overnight with a farmer (John Laurie) and his much younger wife (Peggy Ashcroft), whom mistakes for the farmer’s daughter – naturally evoking the farmer’s malcontent. As occurs in more than a few moments in the film, Hitchcock is certainly playing with the concept of marriage. In another fashion, the young wife is like Hannay trapped in a loveless and isolated marriage to a miserable man and the short but strong interaction between her and Hannay is one that is innocent yet certainly punctuated by feelings of romance and lost opportunities for the young wife. She is also the only one that accepts Hannay’s truth and goes out of the way to help him as best she can. Her seemingly limited help of giving her husband’s coat will later prove life saving for Hannay.

Hannay finally encounters the man he needs to see, Professor Jordan (Godfrey Tearle) – a respected man in the area who gives him refuge. But as in all things Hitchcock, he is, as the Professor describes himself, ‘not all I seem’. Hannay realises he is trapped and responds grimly to the Professor’s apology for ‘leading him down the garden path’ to which Hannay says ‘it’s certainly the wrong garden’. If the Hitchcock thriller is anything, it is not a simple and straightforward thriller and like Hannay, the audience has been led down the garden path as well.

Hannay’s journey is far from over but he has found out far more than he bargained for and an eventual escape leads him into of all things, a political meeting. Being mistaken for the guest speaker, Hannay delivers what is an impassioned and memorable speech calling for a better world. More so, he elicits from the audience the universal feeling of isolation when he emphatically declares, ‘ and I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me and those are things that no man or woman ought to feel’. An audience just out of the worse years of the Great Depression would certainly have been touched by these words. The dour crowd is energised and despite again playing a role for survival, Hannay’s call for a better world is certainly tinged with the reality of his situation and an underlying concern from Hitchcock regarding the world of 1935, which had seen the rise of fascism, the Nazis and the tensions leading to World War Two.

Here, Hannay is stunned when during his speech, Pamela walks in and she is equally stunned to see him. Again, she refuses to believe his story and the Professor’s men posing as detectives take them both for questioning. However, here the story takes a turn into screwball, at least primarily in the relationship between Hannay and Pamela. Pamela’s cold distrust and wariness turns into irritation then grudging acceptance of his innocence and finally – love. The dialogue and timing between them is perfect and the chemistry between the two magnificent. Donat’s charisma and charm melds with Carroll’s exquisite beauty and talent for comedy, for a duo that finally works towards the goal of unfurling the mystery.

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Much has been written about Madeleine Carroll fitting and/or forming the cool ice-blonde woman that figured in most of Hitchcock’s films from here on. Like those other women, as pointed out by Roger Ebert, Pamela too would go through humiliation and suffering. When the faux detectives take the two, they are handcuffed together and Pamela is dragged around by Hannay in his escape, half-drowned in cold water and bullied by Hannay, who pretends to be the murderer she believes him to be. However, their arrival at an inn and the scene that follows combines all the classic elements of screwball a la It Happened One Night, whilst remaining totally original, perfectly crafted and relevant to the story and an absolute treasure to watch. Later when she discovers the truth, the musical accompaniment and warmth of her smile, ties together for Pamela everything that Hannay has gone through. Hitchcock was canny enough to prepare the two for their screen relationship by cuffing them together during their first meeting and pretending to lose the key. As the hours drew out, both Donat and Carroll not only got past initial politeness and mild irritation but also used the opportunity to get to know each other. Hitchcock certainly drew on their experience and used this on the screen to masterful effect.

Pamela plays a fundamental role in Hannay’s experience from our gaze as the audience. Before her personal revelation that Hannay is an innocent man speaking the truth about a dangerous spy, she believes him dangerous and like Hannay, we are incredulous that he is not believed. He literally bristles with frustration for us and all his protestations fall on deaf ears. She does eventually thaw (evocation of the ice blonde) and our joy in her acceptance and warmth to him becomes twofold; we enjoy seeing her acceptance, not as an audience wanting the two to come together but also through our identification with Hannay that he is final believed. The innocent man pursued and persecuted has an ally but there is hope in the fabric of how this story has been weaved.

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What draws us to Hannay, aside from the outstanding performance he gives us and our identification with him, is that he possesses an incredible spontaneity, which serves him amazingly well in his double/combined quest of survival by absolving himself and revealing the villains. As William Hare correctly states, he pieces everything together on the spur of the moment, with an amazing ‘creative intelligence’. Hannay, of course, is constantly haunted by Annabella’s words of which some come to full realisation as his understanding unfolds along the way. Daniel Srebnicki’s 2004 essay points out that Hannay’s incessant whistling of Mr Memory’s theme music not only annoys Pamela but Hannay as well, whose frustration turns to abject joy when the full discovery of the truth is made in the finale. It is the perfect link and full coming of circle from the first scene in the film. Yet even then, Hannay needs to push the limit, testing the situation with the crucial and fundamental question to reveal the truth and seek full vindication. ‘Solving the riddle’ is not enough as far more is at stake.

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The 39 Steps is Hitchcock at his finest prior to his career shifting full gear into Hollywood. It is a film where the audience enjoys the freedom of ‘filling in the blanks’ as Hare puts it and we enjoy some of the masterful tools that Hitchcock gainfully used for the first time such as the McGuffin, the ice blonde woman, the chase for freedom and vindication and particularly the innocent man against world. James Naremore believes that Hannay is a character placed in all kinds of public situations where he has to put on an act – this Donat is acting within the acting on screen (no mean feat!). Furthermore, the tone veers from screwball to melodramatic danger to perverse anxiety, without missing a beat or losing itself in any way. It is held together by Hitchcock’s brilliance but also by brilliant performances, tight pacing and a fine-tuned script. Donat as the innocent Hannay caught in a web of intrigue is perhaps one of cinema’s finest performances. Charles Laughton would call Donat one of the most brilliant actors he had ever seen and his incredible naturalness in the role is such a joy to behold. Naremore adds that ‘dark humour mingles with sexual innuendo and utopian romance, and the movement between these modes is often treated like a dialectical montage’. Indeed, it could only be so by the design of cinematic tools of the trade, used by masters of their craft. Interestingly, according to biographer J. C Trewin, Donat would declare his time on the set of The 39 Steps as some of the happiest moments of his career.

Perhaps Richard Hannay could be described as the patron saint of the innocent man on the run, at least in the Hitchcock universe. Certainly it would become a powerful and central theme that Hitchcock would re-visit albeit with a different actor e.g. Cary Grant, who also had charisma and screen presence and a persona whom audiences were happy to identify with. We can all find ourselves in the persona of Richard Hannay, finding ourselves in life situations that challenge us to make it through, find our way and come out the end as survivors. No wonder films like The 39 Steps and the themes they examine, never lose their impact.

This article has been submitted for the 2018 Second Annual Alfred Hitchcock Movie Blogathon, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Please click on the following link for access to more articles for this blogathon – The Second Annual Alfred Hitchcock Blogathon 2018

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Black Legion (1937): A Warning Against Fascism And Bigotry

by Paul Batters

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Cinema has always been used as a medium to outline social issues and concerns and bring them to the attention of audiences. Of all the major studios, which produced ‘social message’ films, Warner Bros. perhaps did them best during the classic era and certainly produced some interesting social message films during the 1930s. Films such as Mervyn LeRoy’s I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932) were so successful that they became influential in challenging the penal system’s use of chain gangs. Even the gangster genre would step into the realm of the message film, examining the shaping of the mobster and the social ills that created crime in films such as Dead End (1937) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938).

What made them successful, particularly during the 1930s, was that the stories were often drawn from real events (or at the very least inspired by real events) that had been reported in the media. More often than not, these films as a result, aesthetically used a realist approach to narrative and even at times felt like a newsreel. These films also had great appeal to the working class, who were grappling with the Great Depression and the complexities of navigating their way through the difficulties they faced each day.

To the credit of Warner Bros, they were quite courageous in making these films. True, they were often programmers that were easy to produce and ran at about 70 to 80 minutes in total. Yet they did not exactly lack in production values and indeed had strong casts with very capable and talented directors, using well-written scripts. Most of all, they tackled subjects which were controversial and Warner Bros. were also perhaps the only studio who were not afraid to openly condemn Nazi Germany in the late 1930s and early days of World War Two.

Black Legion (1937) is perhaps one of Warner Bros. best ‘social message’ movies and one that has largely been ‘forgotten’. As a Warner Bros, film, it could be easily dismissed as another programmer but it has pedigree far beyond a typical B-picture. Directed by Archie Mayo (with some of the film directed by an uncredited Michael Curtiz), it was also overseen by the talented Hal B. Wallis and producer Robert Lord. As already mentioned, the story itself, scripted from a Robert Lord story by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines, was drawn from actual events and a contemporary news story, which had shocked the nation at that time.

It is also a film that gave Bogart his first chance major opportunity to showcase his range of abilities and remove himself from the usual role of gangster/tough guy that he had been playing in numerous roles. Bogart certainly seized on this opportunity, shaping a very human and dimensional portrayal of Taylor, which was praised by critics at the time.

Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart) is a typical American mid-Western factory worker, married to his lovely wife Ruth (Erin O’Brien-Moore). Indeed, the Taylors are what would have been termed at the time, as ‘all-American’ and the un-named town in which they live would have typified the same ideal of America in the mid-west. Hardworking and industrious, the Taylors are also close friends with their neighbours, the Grogans who run a boarding house. Ed Jackson (Dick Foran) who lives there and develops a romantic interest in Betty Grogan (Ann Sheridan) is Frank’s best friend and works with Frank at the same factory. Everything appears idyllic, with the possibility of promotion when the shop floor steward Tommy Smith (John Litel) announces the position.

Frank dreams of better things for himself and his family, so far as to consider purchasing a new car. However, his dreams are shattered when the promotion goes to the hard-working son of a Polish immigrant, Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon).

Frank becomes bitter and his disappointment festers into something worse. Ed Jackson tells Frank to let it go and that he can’t begrudge Dombrowski’s success as he’s always working to better himself instead of just drinking beer and listening to the ballgame on the radio. But Frank’s anger and disappointment is seized on and fed by another work colleague, Cliff (Joseph Sawyer) who sells Frank the reason for his losing the promotion – immigrants are taking over America and stealing jobs from good Americans. Frank’s push into the darkness is also assisted by his coming across a radio program, denouncing foreigners and declaring the need to protect American values – ‘America for Americans’ comes the catch-cry.

Before long, Frank accepts Cliff’s invitation to a ‘secret meeting’ and he joins the Black Legion, a Ku Klux Klan type group who wear hooded garments and use violence against anyone not truly ‘American’. Frank pledges his allegiance to the violent organisation, reciting a terrible oath that by all accounts was an actual word for word recital of the initiation. He is then ordered to purchase a gun and a hooded uniform, which is described as a necessary sacrifice for the cause.

 

 

 

 

 

But Frank’s initial apprehension seems to be dispelled in a striking scene, where Frank poses with his newly purchased revolver. It is a chilling and disturbing scene, which foreshadows De Niro as Travis Bickle some 40 years later. Instead of a mirror, the camera focuses on Frank’s shadow, pointing his gun and seeing how it looks. But Bogart is powerful at showing how it feels to hold the gun and it perhaps the most obvious first step into Frank’s collapse and a brilliantly depicted disintegration of someone who was a ‘family man’. In this scene, the sad truth shows a little man trying to be big and the terrible and wholly-mistaken misconception that a gun makes a man, comes to the fore as well as a theme.

Before long, Frank is taking part in the violent and brutal actions that the Black Legion deems protecting American values. They target the Dombrowski farm, burning it to the ground and sending them out of town, satisfying Frank’s violent jealousy. Before long Frank gains the promotion due to Dombrowski’s departure, which initially vindicates Frank’s feelings and actions.

However, Frank’s success is short-term and not only does he lose his promotion but he begins to lose those around him. The great irony in this tragedy is that Frank loses what he has sought to ‘protect’, his family. The desire for the American dream, symbolised by a new car and material objects, results in Frank losing his focus on love for his family. He ignores his son Buddy to listen to a radio program spouting bigotry instead of the usual time spent together listening to serial Speed Foster. He isolates himself from his wife, staying out late with the Legion and even beginning to drink. However, Frank’s demise is far from a clichéd fall from grace – director Archie Mayo is astute enough to establish Frank’s character as already flawed, lacking the work ethic and ambition to better himself yet despising someone that does have those qualities.

Eventually, Frank finds himself so deep in trouble that he will even betray the friend who tries to help him and forgets his earlier family-focused principles, starting a relationship with Pearl Davis (Helen Flint), a woman whose morals would be described as ‘loose’ to use the 1930s euphemism. But Mayo is careful to pin Frank’s downfall on Frank’s own weaknesses and failings – and not on some wicked woman who seduces an innocent man from his loving wife and family. Frank has been seduced and allowed himself to fall to the ugliness of bigotry and racism.

The tragedy of the story reaches its’ zenith when Frank finds himself caught up in murder and a courtroom ending, which mirrors the real-life accounts that the story was drawn from. This reviewer will leave readers to discover the outcomes for themselves.

Black Legion is a very-well crafted film which paces well and never loses its’ audience. There are a good number of reasons why it works.

Directors Archie Mayo (and an uncredited Michael Curtiz) make effective use of the 83 minute time frame of the film. Aside from the sub-plot of Ed and Betty’s romance, the story paces well and few scenes are drawn out or over-cooked. Each scene is tailored together perfectly, adding depth and avoiding clichés as the audience watches Frank’s personal collapse. The tragedy that unfolds is all the more believable because there is conviction in what we see on the screen – and sadly, the audience is fully aware that racial violence and bigotry is not in the imagination of film-makers but a real and terrible reality. As a result, Black Legion is more than a morality tale and indeed aims to make us feel uncomfortable and concerned. Mayo does adopt a documentary style suited to the nature of the thematic approach, allowing for the realism that permeated social message films of the period. Patricia King Hanson and Anthony Slide make the point that whilst there are elements of melodrama, the emphasis remains on that very realism mentioned and the characters on the screen are shaped and portrayed in a way, which audiences would have identified with. The regular use of the radio is also a brilliant touch of realism at punctuating dramatic points, and in particular turning points in the film.

Bogart’s performance is outstanding and critics in 1937 felt it was his breakthrough film. Following from his menacing turn as Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest (1936), Bogart took a role that was neither glamorous or heroic or empathetic to an audience. Indeed, Frank Taylor is far from an admirable man and aside from the earlier scenes showing a typified working-man and his family, the truth shows a weak man, looking for excuses for his own failures and missed opportunities. Wallis had wanted E.G Robinson but Bogart fit the story concept of someone who ‘looked American’, which would not only fit the very demographic that the Klan and Legion in real life were aiming for but also typify the emotional experience of that demographic and tap into the psychology of the very individual drawn to the Klan. Bogart exhibits a powerful emotional range in Taylor’s decline and disintegration, exposing a raw reality that such men are inherently weak and racism and bigotry becomes an easy and seductive excuse.

The lovely Erin O’Brien-Moore (whose career was tragically effected by burns from a freak accident) is strong as Frank’s wife. Ann Sheridan is as solid as always in a secondary role, though she doesn’t have much else to do other than act as a romance interest for Dick Foran. Helen Flint is cast as the cheap tart that is always on the prowl for a man and winds up with Taylor near the end of the film. She works as a plot device to highlight how far Frank has fallen but admittedly her performance is a little overdone. Nonetheless, it takes nothing away from the power of the film. Interesting enough, Dick Foran appears to be more interested in drinking and minding his own business yet when the crisis arises with Frank, it is Foran’s character who tries to save him and shows he has deeper principles than first displayed.

 

 

 

 

 

Despite the critics hailing the film and its’ nomination for a number of awards, including Best Screenplay at the Oscars for 1937, Black Legion would not make Bogart a star. As A.M Sperber and Eric Lax point out, the harsh reality on the Warner Bros. lot was that Bogart was not going to get a look in before their established stars in Cagney, Robinson and Raft. Additionally, The New York Times, whilst hailing the film as powerful and superb, noted that the film was too hard-hitting and close to the bone to have a lasting impact. Bogart would go back to supporting roles and whilst he didn’t know it at the time, stardom was still four or five years away.

What is particularly scary about Black Legion is that it still hits close to the bone, particularly in this era, as strong as it ever did. The rising ugliness of populism openly espousing racism, bigotry and sexism has become more than evident in the world today, dividing people and polarising society. It warns of the dangers of fascism, which is a message not singular to the period but one very relevant in the 21st century. The radio spouting out ‘America for Americans’ and ‘hordes of…foreigners’ is a terrifying harbinger of what is being heard today. Black Legion taps into a number of interesting asides regarding such demagoguery and what drives racist organisations; the exploitation of the very people – ‘real Americans’ – for financial and political gains. New members are forced to buy a hooded uniform and gun, and Legion leaders higher up the chain makes demands on subordinates to gain more members in order to bring in more profits. The interesting comment being made here is that rich business men are the real power behind such organisations, and the undertones of what drives fascism and is also examined in other films such as Meet John Doe, is certainly a controversial issue. It is incredible that the scene showing the businessmen pushing for more members to gain more funds was even allowed yet placed in the film.

Black Legion deserves far more attention than it has previously had and is usually ignored not only as a social message picture but also one which shows one of Bogart’s finest performances in an unsympathetic role of a weak man. As an Australian and thus an outsider to the experience of Trump’s America, it is still impossible not to make the link between what happens in the film and what is happening in America today. However, the spectre of fascism and bigotry is not to be ignored by anyone in any nation. Black Legion makes this more than evident and is a powerful film that stands up strong in its’ truth and delivery – today as much as it did in 1937.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Dracula, Prince Of Darkness (1966): Hammer Horror In Full Colour

by Paul Batters

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During the classic era of cinema, it is indisputable that Universal was the master of the horror film. They would introduced to audiences iconic monsters that are known and loved and in Lugosi, Karloff and Chaney (Snr and Jnr) gave us wonderful actors who themselves became deserved icons of the silver screen. When the first cycle of horror films began in the early 1930s, high production values and story development were key with directors such as James Whale and Tod Browning, as well as the cinematography of the brilliant Karl Freund, shaping now classic films. By the 1940s, however, not only had production values changed but audiences had as well, and what were initially quality films became arguably less so, with more of an exploitive approach that sought to capitalise on ‘monster combinations’. The final nail in the coffin (excuse the pun) was the Universal pantheon of monsters becoming comedic foils for Abbott And Costello.

Sci-fi, aliens and giant bugs seemed to be the new order of things in horror cinema. It also seemed that the classic monsters had been put to rest, by audience demand and studio design rather than the powers of good over evil. And so it remained for around a decade.

Until Hammer films emerged.

If Universal in the 1930s and 1940s gave us dark fairy tales with haunting camera work in shades of silver, Hammer splashed the screen with vibrant colour, kept us on edge with dramatic action and titillated us with overt sexuality. Hammer would re-define the horror film and the familiar monsters that had become predictable would be given a make-over. Perhaps the classic monster that be re-identified best would be the Carpathian count and king of vampires – Dracula.

Hammer’s now classic Horror Of Dracula (1958) would bring Christopher Lee to the role of the Count. Unlike the hypnotic portrayal of Lugosi, Lee brought not only a regal and commanding presence to the role but a bestial creature baring fangs when taking his victims. Women swooned and there was no off-screen ending to cheat audiences of the vampire’s death. Instead, a battle to the end ensued between the formidable Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) and the Count, with an unforgettable ending, which stunned audiences.

Despite the film becoming a huge success and launching Hammer into the stratosphere, it would be eight years before Lee would re-appear as the Count in Terence Fisher’s Dracula – Prince Of Darkness (1966). As David Pirie points out in his book The Vampire Cinema, it would be a far more explicit film than its’ 1958 predecessor.

The film begins with a flashback to the exciting and shockingly explicit demise of the Count from the 1958 film. The narrator speaks of Van Helsing’s triumph over ‘the obscene cult of vampirism’. But as we will soon discover, the triumph will not be permanent and even after years of Dracula turned to dust, the village and surrounding countryside are still living in the shadows of Dracula’s evil. Their fears come to the fore as the story proper begins, with the funeral of a young woman and her mother crying over the treatment of her dead daughter. The local priest wants her impaled but the tense moment is broken by a gunshot and Father Sandor appears, scolding the local priest and the others for their superstition and blasphemy. Fisher’s opening scene is nicely constructed, acting twofold as an introduction to the climate of fear in the village as well as the authority who will combat Dracula, Father Sandor (Andrew Keir).

The story then focuses on the Kents, two English gentlemen and their respective wives who are travelling and stop at the village. As they visit a local inn, they happen to meet Father Sandor, who warns them against visiting Karlsbad but of course they dismiss the warnings. After an argument with their carriage driver, which gets very heated indeed, they end up making their way to the castle in a driverless carriage. However, unlike the broken battlements of the 1931 film, the Kents find themselves in well-kept though seemingly lonely castle. The table is strangely set and they find their baggage has been taken to their ‘rooms’. Yet this doesn’t seem to unduly put them off, although Helen Kent (Barbara Shelley) continually feels that something is wrong and warns the others that they should leave. Yet her husband Alan (Bud Tingwell) and his brother Charles (Francis Matthews) wave away her concerns. Here, Fisher again builds the tension when a strange dark figure emerges from the shadows, to a scream from Helen, only to discover that is a servant named Klove (Phillip Latham).

Klove explains that his master stated that guests should always be made welcome, even though his master was dead. The Kents enjoy the dinner, though Helen less so, and they do remark at the lack of servants that would be expected to manage the running of such a castle. As they move around, the wind howls outside, heightening the loneliness of the place and perhaps suggestive of the death that will come. The Kents toasting Dracula at dinner and hoping ‘may he rest in peace’ is an equally ominous and ironic statement!

At nightfall, Alan makes the ill-fated decision to poke around and becomes a victim of Klove. Here, the Hammer touch makes its’ mark as Klove hangs Alan upside down and slashes his victim’s throat. Thick litres of ultra-red blood pours out to mix with Dracula’s ashes, reviving the Count who will begin to wreak havoc on the Kents. His first victim will be the prim and proper Helen, whose warnings were ignored. Her turn into a vampire is a proto-type for future vampirised female victims; hair flowing, almost sheer night-gown and breasts billowing. The moment is pure Hammer horror – over-the-top colour and gruesome to behold.

The surviving Kents almost become victims but manage to escape by chance when Diana (Suzan Farmer) discovers one of vampire lore’s most time-honoured tropes; the power of the crucifix. Dracula and the now- vampirised Helen can only look on, with Dracula throwing Helen aside in disgust and rage as the Kents escape. They finally make the way into the safe hands of Father Sandor at the monastery.

At this point, this review will leave the story for the reader to discover. Nonetheless, it is impossible not to mention some interesting turns in the story. Unlike previous vampire films, the audience is treated to the explicitness that would become staples in future Hammer movies. Lee’s Dracula bares his fangs, hissing at his victims and those who transgress his commands and Fisher was not averse to showing Lee use his fangs either! Additionally, a powerful scene straight from Stoker’s novel shows the Count opening a wound in his chest, enticing Diana to drink from him. It is interesting to see Stoker being mined for story points. Even the minor character of Ludwig, as a plot device for Klove to smuggle Dracula and Helen into the monastery is clearly the mad Renfield appropriated for the said purpose.

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Christopher Lee plays a different vampire to his portrayal of eight years previous. The noblesse charm of the 1958 film gives way to a Dracula that no longer needs any pretence. Lee’s vampire leaps at his victims as well, cruel and inhuman in every way. His black cape is lined in red to amplify Dracula’s bloodlust but also as Lee quipped because Hammer like a lot of colour. Strangely enough, Lee’s screen time is fairly limited and there is no dialogue at all, save for some hissing and a yell at the end! There is some dispute over the lack of dialogue that has Lee and script-writer Jimmy Sangster in dispute. Nonetheless, Lee is a terrifying Dracula and despite some critics’ concerns (and Lee’s own reluctance to play the Count), Hearn and Barnes point out in their book ‘The Hammer Story’ that the Christopher Lee Fan Club were delighted. Lee’s portrayal is one of a supernatural creature, animal in every way, and dominates the screen whenever he appears. He menaces his victims with incredible strength and it is only the crucifix that mutes his powers.

The demise of Helen is perhaps one of Hammer’s films most publicised and famous images. As a group of monks hold Helen down, she writhes around before a large stake is placed over heart and plunged into her. The scene could be interpreted in a number of ways – and the sexual overtones of the scene are obvious and highly suggestive. The camera captures the entire moment in full view and it still shocks and stuns today. Helen’s vampirisation also suggests the sensual and sexual qualities of the vampire. Helen’s transformation from a gentile lady into sexual creature also suggests the repressive nature of Victorian gender roles, as well as the connection of sexual freedom with bestial desire. Hammer certainly exploited this factor in their films.

The film’s ending will not be given away here but it should be noted that it is not the ending audiences would expect and delves into a little known aspect of vampire lore, which is rarely if ever considered.

Today there are many mixed reviews regarding Dracula, Prince Of Darkness. Empire Magazine makes a fair criticism that ‘once Dracula is up and about, the script can’t find much for him to do’. Fisher’s direction becomes stilted and the story loses some of its’ earlier effectiveness once the surviving Kents escape. The cast, whilst solid in performances, is perhaps missing some firepower. Keir is admirable as the authoritative Father Sandor but he is no Peter Cushing, perhaps the best Van Helsing the screen has yet to see. The usually talented Phillip Latham is not impressive as Klove and Bud Tingwell is a far better actor who is underused and actually has very little to do.

Yet there is still plenty to enjoy and all the familiar tropes and iconography of both the vampire story and Hammer productions are ever present. It’s still a great deal of fun and any opportunity to see Christopher Lee as the evil Count Dracula, eyes blazing red as he is about to strike, should never be missed.

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This article has been submitted for the 2018 Great Hammer-Amicus Blogathon, hosted by Gill at RealWidgieMidget and Barry from Cinematic Catharsis. Please click on the following links for access to more articles for this blogathon – http://cinematiccatharsis.blogspot.com/2018/06/the-great-hammer-amicus-blogathon-is_3.html?_sm_au_=iVVTjWN25qfkZ7QQ and https://weegiemidget.wordpress.com/2018/06/02/and-theres-more-in-hammer-amicus-blogathon-day-2/

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Three Musketeers (1948) – For A Lazy Sunday Afternoon

by Paul Batters

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Who wants to live ’till the last bottle is empty? It’s all-for one, d’Artagnan, and one for all!’ Athos (Van Heflin)

Films provide us with a myriad of opportunities and personal responses. We all have those films that can be a catharsis for pent up emotions, from which we find release where others merely shrug or cannot see or make the personal connection. There are those films we watch and in which we become deeply immersed or those we simply enjoy because they are fun. Hollywood has always been about escape and stepping into another world is a key part of the magic. Indeed, we sometimes find ourselves watching a film (after enjoying it many times before) because it’s a ‘go-to’ when we need something that’s either not too taxing on our thought process or is the perfect film to get comfortable with on the sofa. As much as I enjoy considering the brilliance of how a director like Murnau frames the mis-en scene, it’s also nice to enjoy some silly film that’s just plain fun. Sometimes you need a good burger and a Coke over filet mignon and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon (or two).

For me, MGM’s colourful and grandiose The Three Musketeers (1948) is such a film.

The classic novel by Alexandre Dumas, pere, is a particular favourite of mine and it is no wonder that the famous story has been filmed numerous times. It offers adventure, romance and intrigue, with liberal doses of exciting characters and history (or historical fiction to be precise), all thrown together in an almost epic story. Bringing such a story to the screen, presents quite the challenge to the director and MGM certainly saw the value in doing so in 1947, when it announced that a film adaption of the story was going into production. Its’ eventual release in 1948 was a financial success for MGM, although profits would be slightly whittled down by the huge production cost.

Yet despite this, The Three Musketeers, directed by George Sidney, is not exactly MGM at its’ very best though critics generally gave it good reviews, including Bosley Crowther. Over time, however, critics have been less kind in their reviews. In fairness, the negative criticisms are not unfounded. Visually, The Three Musketeers is a Technicolor extravaganza that is perhaps a little too saturated in rich colour and goes way over the top in the costume department. The film is also over-long with certain scenes drawn out, unnecessary and laboured to the point of distraction. As a result, the pacing of the film goes awry. Additionally, the direction of the film at certain points becomes disjointed, with the film not able to decide whether it is rollicking fun-filled romp, petty melodrama, romance or dark historical drama. The romance scenes are as cheesy as you can get and Kelly’s wooing of June Allyson is cringe-worthy of the highest degree. And just for good measure, the casting is also a little off-key, despite some great talent.

Let’s have a look at the story.

The oft-told story has the young, naïve and slightly grandiose d’Artagnan (portrayed by the not-so-young Gene Kelly) heading to Paris to fulfil his dream of becoming a Musketeer. On his journey, he immediately finds himself in trouble, which will inadvertently find him committed to fight three duals in one day – against the very men he intends to join, the Three Musketeers. In the process of the first duel against Athos (Van Heflin), the guards of the King’s powerful Prime Minister Richelieu (Vincent Price) interrupt them and a mighty sword fight ensues. d’Artagnan fights alongside and wins the admiration of the three, who embrace him into their friendship group.

But he is drawn into further intrigue when he falls in love with Constance (June Allyson), a lady-in-waiting of the Queen (Angela Lansbury). Given a set of 12 diamonds by her husband the King (Frank Morgan), she instead offers them as a gift to her lover the English Duke Of Buckingham (John Sutton). Richelieu learns of this and sees an opportunity to gain mileage out of it but our heroic group set out to retrieve the jewels from England, facing danger, whilst Richelieu employs the treacherous and beautiful Countess de Winter (Lana Turner).

It’s all part of his scheme to bring France and England to war, and thus seize the throne for himself. However, d’Artagnan is successful in his mission and returns with the jewels including two replacements, previously stolen by the Countess.

Impressed by d’Artagnan’s courage, Richelieu attempts to gain his services by not only kidnapping Constance but by also using the Countess to seduce and distract the young aspiring musketeer. But as he starts to fall for the Countess, d’Artagnan discovers a terrible truth from the long-suffering Athos – the Countess is actually Athos’ wife, condemned to death for her treachery.

After much turmoil, war does break out and although things do not go well for Richelieu, he is not yet undone. The Musketeers discover proof, which will implicate Richelieu in his evil plans but they must first deal with the Countess as well as maintain the King’s good graces. The final ending will not be revealed here!

There’s a fair amount of silliness, barely believable character development and motivation and political intrigue that makes little sense. So why do I enjoy the film?

Because it is fun to watch – even with all the nonsense.

There is some weak casting but the strengths outweigh any weaknesses. True, Gene Kelly is not exactly what many might picture as a believable d’Artagnan, considering Kelly’s age at the time. But he was certainly dedicated to the role. Kelly, who had long held an ambition to play the role, previously and famously played in the 1921 silent version by the legendary Douglas Fairbanks Snr, particularly championed the production of the film. According to Gene Kelly, Fairbanks had been a boyhood hero of his, and marvelled at his acrobatic skill and screen presence, leaving the boy with dreams of matching the great man’s skills. In a February 1985 issue of Interview, Kelly stated that his greatest influence was the legendary silent screen star: ‘I couldn’t believe his grace, his moves, his athleticism’. Despite a long-standing dream of playing the role, Kelly would admit that it was a taxing time playing D’Artagnan, outlining in a 1991 interview with Reflections:

“Every time I think about The Three Musketeers I want to groan…ouch! I feel sore and stiff at just the thought of it… I had to go into training for that picture just like a prizefighter before a fight”.

Additionally, Kelly himself had the athleticism and physical skill of an amazing dancer and he brings this to the portrayal. Kelly’s d’Artagnan is formidable and incredibly skilled with the sword, and the amazing sword fights and action are breathtaking in their choreography and some of the best on screen. Kelly would state:

We studied two hours a day with Jean Heremans, the national fencing champion of Belgium, to learn how to fence. What a genius he was. When he had finished with us we, who were greenhorns, were able to fight with one hand tied behind. It was hard work.”

All the training and hard work appears seamless on the screen and it’s one of the great strengths of the film. Furthermore, Kelly does bring a vivaciousness, joy and carefree naivety that fit the portrayal quite well.

A number of critics haven’t thought much of Van Heflin as Athos but he’s believable as the tormented musketeer haunted by a past and drowning his sorrows in drink. Heflin conveys the tragedy of Athos’ life with authenticity and the final scenes, which bring his personal tragedy to a head, are also done well.

But perhaps the best casting is Lana Turner as the Countess. She is absolutely gorgeous to look at and as dangerous as a femme fatale. By all reports, she wasn’t too keen on the role but MGM prevailed upon her and we get to see Turner in her first Technicolor film. The final scenes as she faces justice are also beautifully done. Also outstanding is Vincent Price as Richelieu. The combination of his physicality, wonderful voice and incredible confidence shapes a memorable and completely believable villain.

Production wise, there was no hold back on the cost. All the hallmarks of a classic MGM production are present. The MGM used their back-lot well and the keen eye will recognise some of the sets being used in period pieces and historical dramas, not to mention the odd musical. Street scenes, inns, palaces and gardens all evoke the era and our hero and his cohort seem right at home there as they make merry, fight and carouse.

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Truth to be told, The Three Musketeers is superficial silliness and yes, there is plenty that could have been fixed. But put aside critical analysis and it’s also a lot of fun. The fact that it’s gaudy and over-the-top shapes its’ appeal and despite the director unsure of his film’s identity, it never truly take itself seriously. And we all need that type of film from time to time.

This article has been submitted for the 2018 Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon, hosted by The Classic Film And TV Cafe Blog. Please click on the following link for access to more articles for this blogathon – https://www.classicfilmtvcafe.com/2018/05/celebrate-national-classic-movie-day.html

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.  

London After Midnight (1927): The Movie and The Myth

by Paul Batters

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Around mid-February this year, a rumour did the rounds on social media and film-sites that a certain lost classic film had indeed been found. Or to be more correct, the headline was click-bait and the generally short article which followed was a rumour about a rumour that a certain lost classic film had been found. Nothing substantiated and the same oft-repeated story that is recycled every so often spoke about a print in Spain (or was it Cuba?) or a private collector in possession of a print who just before releasing it, decides against it and thus the story leaves a haze of smoke (excuse the poor joke) before we all move on.

There are a number of lost films which gather the excitement of film fans and in some cases the excitement is warranted. A good example is the recently restored version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which is considered almost fully restored after a damaged print of Lang’s complete film was found in an Argentinian museum. But versions of the film had been around previously and it was not a totally lost film. A film like Erich von Stroheim’s 1922 epic Greed has become legendary for its’ missing footage which reportedly runs into hours and the final MGM cut was not in line with von Stroheim’s vision. Again, rumours of missing footage surface from time to time – all proving false. There are countless other films, particularly from the silent era, which are considered lost and perhaps, sadly, always will be.

So when the rumour arose earlier this year that Tod Browning’s London After Midnight (1927) had emerged, the ardour of fans was cautioned by the usual disappointment that follows. Like Greed and a number of other lost films, London After Midnight has been dubbed the ‘holy Grail’ of lost films – a term almost clichéd, as I have the distinct feeling that if it is ever discovered, the initial excitement of film fans will soon become muted.

London After Midnight was destroyed, along with hundreds of other films, in the MGM vault fire of 1967. Ironically, MGM was perhaps the only studio that worked to preserve its’ films, using contemporary technology to protect the original nitrates as well as convert them to safer film. Many of the other studios tragically allowed their film stock to crumble and even disposed of them. At any rate, London After Midnight was only one film among many that were destroyed.

This article will not endeavour to outline the plot in detail and nor review the ‘restoration’, which is a 45 minute collection of stills and promotional images. Nevertheless, the film is perhaps more correctly defined as a thriller/mystery, going by contemporary reviews. Lon Chaney Snr plays Inspector Burke of Scotland Yard, who is investigating a death that five years earlier had been designated a suicide. The house in which the victim died has new tenants who are spooked by two eerie and frightening figures, having the appearance of a vampire and his undead companion, Luna (Edna Tichenor). But as the story unfolds, the audience discovers that the spooky goings-on are all part of an elaborate plan to uncover the truth behind the death and the ‘vampire’ is actually Inspector Burke in disguise and Luna is an actress from the theatre. In the end, hypnosis is used to discover the killer by inducing him to re-enact the crime.

If you’re confused by the storyline, you’re not alone and some film historians are even more confused as to why the film is so highly sought after. Yet the news that London After Midnight was lost saw its’ legendary status take root in the imagination of film historians and movie buffs.

So why has it received such legendary status?

The film’s destruction occurred at a time when there had been a resurgence of interest in classic films, with quite a number of films being shown on television for the first time in years. Additionally, classic horror films had regained their popularity, assisted in great part by fanzines and popular monster movie magazines such as ‘Famous Monsters Of Filmland’. The great Lon Chaney Snr was in some ways a star all over again and his ability to play a variety of roles was certainly a point of interest; in this case particularly featuring Chaney in a dual role.

The incredibly striking images of Chaney as a vampire which appeared in such magazines, naturally stirred horror films fans to want to see the legendary Chaney in that very film. Indeed, the make-up used by Chaney is haunting and creepy, and certainly matches his efforts from The Phantom Of The Opera (1925). The rows of sharp teeth, fixed in a permanent smile of death coupled with a pair of dead, drooping eyes staring at the audience, still evokes emotions of dread, terror and repulsion. Stooping and leering at Edna Tichenor in beaver hat, evening dress and bat-winged cape all still remain powerful images for horror film fans and even moreso because they are all we have due to the status of the film as lost.

Along with horror film magazines, the many horror film books also published over the years by authors such as Alan Frank have also discussed the film, further adding to its’ legendary status. With Chaney’s deserved reputation as a legend of film, and his place in horror film history assured, his only film role as a vampire would certainly be fascinating both to horror film buffs and students of classic film. After all, it would be one of the first films after Nosferatu (1922) to depict a vampire in such an explicitly terrifying way (notwithstanding the fact that Chaney is playing someone disguised as a vampire).

Furthermore, those who saw the film upon its’ release have all passed on and any contemporary accounts of the film are left to the reviews from critics. But negative criticisms have tended to be drowned out or muted as the generation that made those critiques and/or originally viewed the film are long since dead. All that is left is the legend and the myth. Added to this is the fact that the generations holding a torch for the film grew up believing in the legend and have thus carried those impressions into the present.

And of course, the primary reason for seeing it would be the star of the film – Lon Chaney Snr. By the time the film was made, he was one of Hollywood’s greatest stars and indeed a name known the world over. It would be a fatal mistake to assume that his stardom was due to his abilities with make-up in creating startling characters. On the contrary, the pathos and emotion of the characters Chaney portrayed on the screen transcended make-up and his screen presence is as potent today as it was during the silent era.

So why would the film disappoint?

By all reports, London After Midnight was a decent earner for MGM in 1927 but it was not a tearaway success and critics at the time were not particularly kind to the film. Soister and Nicolella in American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929 (2012) point out that critics saw the story lines as ‘nonsensical’ and Variety did not rate the film highly, calling Chaney ‘just fair’ in the role, adding that it was ‘not much of a drawing card’. The New York Times was lukewarm in its’ appraisal, also calling the storyline ‘incoherent’ and it didn’t seem impressed by Chaney’s ‘uncanny disguise’.

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Film historians such as William K. Everson have shown greater control and offered critical discussion when discussing the film and make the point that it’s reputation had been blown all out of proportion, particularly by horror film publications geared towards mass consumption by the kiddie and teen markets. As a result, London After Midnight is a film that is perhaps more enigmatic than it deserves to be, if we go by contemporary critics. Our own childhood memories of films are sometimes turned sour upon viewing them as adults and the magic seems to have departed. A viewing of London After Midnight could very well have a similar effect.

Additionally, the film is often mentioned in the same breath as The Phantom Of The Opera (1925) and Paul Leni’s The Cat And The Canary (1927) because of their prosaic endings, as pointed out by Olaf Brill in Expressionism in the Cinema. American audiences at the time would simply not accept supernatural films, in the same way that European audiences did. Whilst much is made about Browning’s ‘cheat ending’, in context audiences at the time may not have been so disappointed. When comparing to the Browning remake of 1935’s Mark Of The Vampire with Bela Lugosi, audiences had made that jump into accepting the supernatural primarily because of the Universal horror cycle of the early 1930s –and ironically it was Browning’s 1931 classic Dracula which started it all. It makes sense that a 1935 audience would have felt ‘cheated’ but what does that mean for today’s audience viewing London After Midnight, after decades of conditioning to accept otherwise and then some?

The existing and remaining stills are certainly thrilling and capture our imagination and it is only natural that we want to see more. But what are we seeing? Are we imposing our own predisposed notions upon those stills, fuelled by our long-held desire to see a lost classic? They are images that promise much but can they deliver?

Perhaps most damning of all, according to Jon Mirsalis, is the claim from Everson and fellow film historian David Bradley that they viewed the film in the early 1950s and it was inferior to its’ 1935 remake Mark Of The Vampire. Mirsalis also adds that:

‘the eerie Cedric Gibbons-Arnold Gillespie sets, and Chaney’s stunning vampire make-up, make for intriguing still photographs, but these scenes account for only a small portion of the film, the rest of the footage being devoted to Polly Moran’s comic relief, and talkie passages between detective Chaney and Walthall…’

Such a claim does not inspire confidence!

As much as other classic film fans, I would still be thrilled and terribly excited to see a re-discovered London After Midnight. The prospect of seeing those famous stills come to life after decades of being captivated by them would be too enticing to ignore. But I fear that if it is re-discovered, for all the brilliance of Lon Chaney Snr, it will not be the classic that we are anticipating.

 

This article is a part of the 2018 Lon Chaney Snr Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films – https://maddylovesherclassicfilms.wordpress.com/2018/05/05/the-lon-chaney-sr-blogathon-day-one/ and Silver Screenings – https://silverscreenings.org/2018/05/06/the-lon-chaney-sr-blogathon-day-two/. Please click on the links for other great articles on the legendary Lon Chaney Snr. 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.