“NORTH BY NORTHWEST” (1959) Review

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“NORTH BY NORTHWEST” (1959) Review

When producers Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and Harry Saltzman first set about creating the James Bond movie franchise, author Ian Fleming – who had written the novels – suggested they hire Hollywood legend, Cary Grant, for the role of the famed British agent. I do not know whether Broccoli and Saltzman seriously considered Fleming’s suggestion, but I cannot help but wonder if had seen the actor in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller, “NORTH BY NORTHWEST”.

“NORTH BY NORTHWEST” originated with a deal Hitchcock had with MGM Studios to do a film version of Hammond Innes’ novel, “The Wreck of the Mary Deare”. Hitchcock recruited a friend of his, screenwriter Ernest Lehman, to write the script. But after several weeks, Lehman found himself unable to write an adaptation. Longing to work with Lehman, Hitchcock suggested that he write something else – namely the ultimate “Hitchcock film”. The results turned out to be a chase film featuring an innocent man accused of a crime he did not commit.

The movie’s story begins with advertising executive Roger O. Thornhill being mistaken for a U.S. government agent named George Kaplan, when he summons a hotel bellhop, who is paging Kaplan at the same time. Two enemy agents named Valerian and Licht kidnap Thornhill and take him to their superior, a major foreign spy named Phillip Vandamm, who is using the Long Island home of a man named Lester Townsend for this meeting. When Thornhill continues to insist that he is not George Kaplan, Vandamm orders his right-hand man Leonard, along with Valerian and Licht to stage a drunk driving death for ad executive. The attempt fails and Thornhill escapes. And when Thornhill fails to convince the law that he had been kidnapped, he sets out to clear his name. He tracks the real Lester Townsend to the United Nations, but the latter is killed by one of Vandamm’s henchman. Thornhill is accused of the crime and he flees. When he learns that Kaplan had checked into a hotel in Chicago, he boards the 20th Century Limited, where he meets an attractive woman named Eve Kendall. She helps him evade the police upon their arrival in Chicago. But unbeknownst to Thornhill, Eve is working with Vandamm and Leonard.

Author and journalist Nick Clooney once described “NORTH BY NORTHWEST” as Alfred Hitchcock’s “most stylish thriller, if not his best”. And I have to agree. “NORTH BY NORTHWEST” proved to be an exciting chase film and travelogue that started in Manhattan and Long Island, and ended up on the side of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Thanks to Lehman’s screenplay, “NORTH BY NORTHWEST” brimmed with sharp dialogue and even sharper characterization. The movie’s opening, which featured Cary Grant’s Thornhill and his secretary engaged in a last minute meeting over his schedule on the streets of Manhattan, gave audience a pretty clear idea of the ad executive’s personality – charming, intelligent, arrogant and impatient. Thornhill is a character that cries for emotional development.

If I must be honest, the characters proved to be the movie’s biggest assets. As much as I like Lehman’s chase story of an innocent man trying to clear his name of murder, I feel that it has some questionable writing. In fact, some of its inconsistencies reminded me of such one would find in a James Bond movie. If Vandamm wanted Thornhill dead that badly, why arrange for the latter’s death at an isolated bus stop in the middle of the Indiana countryside . . . in broad daylight, using a crop duster? Why not have one of his minions quietly put a knife between his ribs on the streets of Chicago? Even arranging Thornhill’s death as a drunk driving incident seemed a bit over-the-top to me. Why not kill Thornhill first, pour alcohol on his body, set the car on fire before sending it over a ledge? I am not claiming to know how Lehman and Hitchcock should have handled these scenarios. But the methods they used for Vandamm’s attempts on Thornhill’s life struck me as similiar to the idiotic methods that many Bond villains used to kill the British agent.

I have to admit that Vandamm’s attempts on Thornhill’s life provided some of the movie’s more memorable moments. The attempt to pass off Thornhill’s death as a drunk driving incident had me on the edge of my seat and at the same, laughing rather hard. A “drunken” Cary Grant really did have me in stitches. I could also say the same about the sequence at the Chicago auction, following the dust cropper incident, in which Thornhill confronted Vandamm and Eve before being hauled away by cops for his hilarious disruption of the auction. The finale sequence at Mount Rushmore brimmed with Hitchcock’s usual style of suspense. But it was the crop duster sequence that truly impressed me. From a narrative point-of-view, the sequence seemed filled with questionable writing. But as a suspenseful and action sequence, I consider it a masterpiece. The most interesting aspect of the crop duster sequence seemed to be its beginning – that fascinating moment in which Thornhill stands at that isolated bus stop for several minutes, staring at another man who has appeared on the scene before the crop duster’s attack. I noticed that director Terence Young did not hesitate to copy it for one action sequence in the 1963 movie, “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE”.

The crop duster sequence and many other scenes benefited from Robert Burks’ excellent photography. I was also impressed by George Tomasini’s editing, which struck me as especially effective in the Long Island, crop duster and Mount Rushmore sequences. Composer Bernard Herrmann, who once made an interesting comment on Richard Rodney Bennett’s score for “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, collaborated on many Hitchcock’s films during a nine-year period between 1955 and 1964. One of those scores was the memorable one he wrote for “NORTH BY NORTHWEST”. His score blended well with the opening titled sequence created by Saul Bass.

But as I had stated earlier, the movie’s biggest strength turned out to be the cast. Both Adam Williams and Robert Ellenstein made quite a sinister pair as Vadamm’s two henchmen, Valerian and Licht. Jessie Royce Landis, who was only seven years older than Cary Grant, gave quite a humorous and stylish performance as his witty mother, Mrs. Thornhill. Leo G. Carroll, who later became famous for the 1960s series “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, was perfect as the intelligent and manipulative spymaster, “the Professor”.

For me, there were four performances that stood out for me. Martin Landau gave his first stand-out performance as Vandamm’s observant, yet malevolent henchman, Leonard. Unless my eyes were deceiving me, Landau seemed to have given Leonard a slight homosexual subtext that I found interesting. In many ways, James Mason’s Vandamm seemed to be the perfect nemesis for Cary Grant’s Thornhill . . . especially with his silky voice, suave manners and good looks. But Mason made sure that the menace was always there behind the debonair facade. I must admit that Eva Marie Saint would have never been my first choice as the movie’s femme fatale, Eve Kendall. But I had forgotten that Saint was a first-rate actress and Oscar winner. I should not have been surprised by her ability to be chameleon and create a leading female character who seemed to be ahead of her time. However, the man of the hour proved to be Cary Grant. He has portrayed characters more complex than Roger Thornhill. But Lehman’s script still managed to provide plenty of bite to a role that began as a child in a man’s body and developed into a heroic and responsible man who managed to retain his wit. I think that Thornhill may prove to be one of my favorite Grant roles.

I do not feel that “NORTH BY NORTHWEST” was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best movies. But I cannot deny that I found it to be one of his most stylish and entertaining films. Not only did it feature memorable action sequences, humor and a superb cast led by Cary Grant; I feel that it could have easily served as a template for many James Bond movies throughout the years. I really look forward to watching the movie as many times possible in the future.

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“THE LADY VANISHES” (1938) Review

 

“THE LADY VANISHES” (1938) Review

During a seventeen year period between 1922 and 1939, legendary director Alfred Hitchcock became one of the more prolific directors during the early years of British cinema. Films such as 1934’s “THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH” and 1935’s “THE 39 STEPS” caught the attention of film critics and Hollywood producers. But it was 1938’s “THE LADY VANISHES” that paved the way for Hitchcock to achieve Hollywood fame and fortune.

Based upon Ethel Lina White’s 1936 novel, “The Wheel Spins”“THE LADY VANISHES” is about a young English woman named Iris Henderson, who stumbles across a mystery surrounding the disappearance of an elderly woman and fellow Briton from a train traveling westward, across Europe. In the fictional country of Bandrika, a group of travelers eager to resume their journey west is delayed by an avalanche that has blocked the railway tracks. Most of the travelers bunk at a local hotel, where Iris and her two friends had been staying for their holiday. Later that night, a folk singer plays a tune that catches the attention of the elderly Miss Froy (May Whitty), who has been working abroad for several years as a governess. Before the singer can finish his tune, he is silenced . . . murdered.

The following morning, the rail tracks are cleared and the passengers are able to resume their journeys. Iris, who plans to marry a wealthy man upon her return to England, becomes one of the train’s passengers. While waiting to board the train, a flower pot meant for Miss Foy, hits Iris on the head. Other passengers include a young English musicologist named Gilbert; Miss Froy; a adulterous couple named “Mr. and Mrs. Todhunter”, who are returning home to their respective spouses; Caldicott and Charters, two friends eager to return to England for a cricket match; and a Central European surgeon named Dr. Egon Hartz, who is accompanying a patient to his clinic. Iris and Miss Froy become acquainted, first in their compartment and later, in the dining car for some tea. Upon their return to their compartment, Iris falls asleep. When she awakens, the the governess has vanished, and Iris is shocked to learn that the other passengers in her compartment claim that Miss Froy had never existed.

Many film critics have claimed that “THE LADY VANISHES” was Hitchcock’s best film during his English period as a director. I cannot agree or disagree, since the only other Hitchcock film made in Britain that I have seen was “THE 39 STEPS”. Unfortunately, I have not seen that particular movie since I was a teenager. However, I cannot deny that “THE LADY VANISHES” was a first-rate, yet slightly flawed movie. I also cannot deny that I consider it to be one of his better movies during the first half of his career as a director.

“THE LADY VANISHES” possessed several aspects that made it very enjoyable for me. One, the movie is set during a journey – in this case, a train journey across Europe. I am a big sucker for “road” movies, especially when it is well made. Two, Hitchcock and the movie’s two screenwriters, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, made several changes to White’s novel – the most important that changed the Miss Foy character from an innocent who had stumbled across a secret to a genuine spy with some vital information for the British government. This particular change injected an air of necessity into the movie that allowed its story to be more suspenseful and urgent. The movie also benefited from some first-class photography by cinematographer Jack E. Cox. He did a solid job of conveying the illusion of travel. But I was especially impressed by two scenes featuring Cox’s use of a train window – a moment in which Iris sees Miss Foy’s name on a dining car window, and Gilbert’s discovery of Miss Foy’s existence by his glimpse of a tea box wrapping pressed briefly pressed against another window.

Hitchcock originally considered Lilli Palmer as his leading lady. But he changed his mind and went with unknown actress Margaret Lockwood, who was a fan of Ethel Lina White’s literary heroines. Personally, he made the right choice. I have nothing against Lilli Palmer, who was a talented actress in her own right. But Lockwood really made Iris her own with a passionate and intelligent performance. Iris could have easily become one of those beautiful, yet slightly bland damsels that solely depended upon men to help her. But Lockwood infused the character with a strong will and an intelligence that allowed her to be a major participant in the deduction of Miss Foy’s whereabouts. A successful stage actor, Michael Redgrave did not want to be a part of the “THE LADY VANISHES”, being reluctant to leave the stage to be in a film. John Gielgud convinced him to accept the role of Gilbert and Redgrave became an international star, following the movie’s release. And it is easy to see why. The man had a natural talent for the screen. And that is not something I can say about many other stage actors who have been lured into movies. Not only did he have a natural grace and charm, his portrayal of Gilbert struck me as both subtle and very funny. He and Lockwood projected a strong screen presence together. And I am surprised that “THE LADY VANISHES” proved to be the first of only two movies they made together. Pity.

“THE LADY VANISHES” was also blessed by a first-rate supporting cast. Paul Lukas gave a very subtle role as the European doctor that proved to be the main villain. Although her character proved to be the story’s main catalyst, Dame May Whitty had very few scenes in this movie. Yet, her warm and intelligent performance as the mysterious Miss Foy proved to have a strong presence throughout the story. Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford had worked on both the stage and in films throughout the 1930s before they worked together for the first time in “THE LADY VANISHES” as the two cricket-loving passengers, Caldicott and Charters. The pair created screen magic and would end up working together as a first-rate comic team for years to come. Cecil Parker and Linden Travers provided some subtle melodrama as a pair of adulterous lovers returning home to their spouses in Britain. Parker’s character, the pretentious “Mr. Todhunter”, ended up serving as an allegory of the appeasement supporters who preferred caving in to Adolf Hitler’s demands, instead of war. Mind you, the use of the “Mr. Todhunter” character seemed a bit heavy-handed, but effective.

As much as I enjoyed “THE LADY VANISHES”, I cannot deny that I found it somewhat flawed. All right, I found it flawed . . . period. The movie’s first twenty minutes at the Bandrika inn struck me as a little boring. Only Iris and Gilbert’s first meeting kept me from falling asleep. And if I must be frank, I found that scene a little hard to accept. After getting kicked out of his room for disturbing Iris’ sleep, Gilbert barged his way into her room and threatened to sleep there if she did not retract her complaint. Why was Iris’ room unlocked? What woman (or man) would leave his hotel room unlocked in a strange country, far from home? Even in 1938?

My biggest problem with “THE LADY VANISHES” turned out to be the British xenophobia that marred the movie’s last half hour. Now, a part of me realizes the movie may have been a propaganda piece against fascism. But in “THE LADY VANISHES”, I believe that Hitchcock, Gilliat and Launder went too far. One, the English-born “nun” (read actress) whom Dr. Hartz hired to guard the unconscious Miss Foy became outraged when she learned that her prisoner was also English. Let me see if I understand this. “The Nun” had no problems helping Dr. Hartz maintain a prisoner, as long as the latter was not a fellow Briton? Really? Even more incredulous was the shoot-out scene in which all of the English passengers found themselves inside the dining car and engaged in a shoot-out with Hartz and his fellow countrymen, after the train is diverted to a side track. Why not allow passengers from nations such as France, Belgium, Holland or the Scandinavian countries participate in the shootout? Why was it so important to Hitchcock and the screenwriters to allow only Britons to duke it out with Hartz and his men? This scene was one of the most blatant forms of xenophobia I had ever come across.

But you know what? Despite the xenophobia and the movie’s dull beginning, “THE LADY VANISHES” remains a big favorite of mine. It is still a first-rate political thriller that is infused with sharp humor and a very believable romance, thanks to Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave. I am not surprised that in the end, “THE LADY VANISHES” ended up serving as the catalyst for Alfred Hitchcock’s Hollywood career.

Favorite Train Journey Movies (REVISED)

A few years ago, I had posted a list of my favorite movies featuring train journeys. Below is a new list. To be honest, the revisions are few, but . . . hey, I felt bored. So I made another list. Without further ado, here it is: 

FAVORITE TRAIN JOURNEY MOVIES (REVISED)

1. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Sidney Lumet directed this all-star adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about Hercule Poirot’s investigation of an American passenger aboard the famed Orient express. Albert Finney starred as Poirot.

2. “Silver Streak” (1976) – Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor and Jill Clayburgh starred in this comedy thriller about a man who stumbles across a murder and criminal conspiracy during a train journey from Los Angeles to Chicago. Arthur Hiller directed.

3. “North West Frontier” (1959) – Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall starred in this adventure about a British Army officer assigned to escort a young Indian prince across rebel-held territory in British India. J. Lee Thompson directed.

4. “From Russia With Love” (1963) – Sean Connery stars as James Bond in this action thriller about the British agent’s efforts to steal the Soviets’ encryption device, unaware that he is being used as a patsy by SPECTRE. Directed by Terence Young, Daniela Bianchi, Lotte Lenya, Pedro Armendáriz and Robert Shaw co-starred.

5. “The First Great Train Robbery” (1979) – Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley Anne Down starred in this comedy thriller about Victorian thieves who make plans to rob a moving train filled with gold for troops during the Crimean War. The movie was written and directed by Michael Crichton.

6. “The Lady Vanishes” (1938) – Alfred Hitchcock directed Margaret Lindsay and Michael Redgrave in this thriller about a young Englishwoman, who realizes that an elderly female passenger has disappeared.

7. “The Tall Target” (1951) – Dick Powell starred in this thriller about a New York cop, who tries to prevent President-elect Abraham Lincoln from Confederate sympathizers out to assassinate him during his rail journey from New York to Washington D.C. for his inauguration. Paula Raymond, Adolphe Menjou and Ruby Dee co-starred.

8. “Narrow Margin” (1990) – Gene Hackman and Anne Archer starred in this crime thriller about an assistant districtattorney from Los Angeles, who escorts a witness to the murder of a Mafia boss’ accountant. James B. Sikking co-starred.

9. “Shanghai Express” (1932) – Josef von Starnberg directed Marlene Dietrich in this tale about about a dangerous rail journey through China during a civil war. Anna May Wong and Clive Brook co-starred.

10. “The Mystery of the Blue Train” (2005) – In this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1928 novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the brutal murder of an American heiress aboard the Blue Train. David Suchet and Elliot Gould starred.

“THE ARTIST” (2011) Review

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“THE ARTIST” (2011) Review

I must have been one of the few people who had been unaware of “THE ARTIST”, when it first hit the American movie theaters in late 2011. To be honest, I was not paying much attention to the previous awards season. I could not find a movie that aroused my interest. When I discovered that the French-American film had overcome George Clooney’s “THE DESCENDANTS”, to become the Academy Awards front-runner . . . well, color me surprised. 

Michel Hazanavicius’ ode to Old Hollywood told the story of a successful silent film star named George Valentin, who seemed to be at the peak of his fame in 1927. At the premiere of his latest hit, he meets a young fan named Peppy Miller outside of the movie theater. She eventually catches the eyes of the press, when a photograph of the two appear in the newspapers, the following morning. It does not take long for Peppy’s career as a movie actress to rise. But when George’s studio boss, Al Zimmer, announces the end of Kinograph Studios’ silent movies production, the actor dismisses the news, claiming that sound is nothing but a fad. George decides to finance, produce and direct his own silent film. Both his new silent movie and Peppy’s new sound film open on the same day as the 1929 Stock Market Crash. While audiences flock to see Peppy’s new movie – making her a major Hollywood star – George’s film becomes a flop . . . and he finds himself financially ruined. Because his rejection of talkies remain steadfast, it is not long before George becomes a broke, Hollywood has been.

Within a few months, “THE ARTIST” managed to acquire near universal acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. Not only did the movie win five Academy Awards – including Best Picture, Best Director (Hazanavicius) and Best Actor for leading man Jean Dujardin; the movie also won seven BAFTA awards, six César awards, three Golden Globe awards and two awards at the Cannes Film Festival. I have not encountered a movie this universally acclaimed in years. And if I must say so, it did not deserve a single award.

That is correct. I consider “THE ARTIST” to be one of the most overrated movies I have seen in years. In fact, I find it even more overrated than last year’s Oscar winner, “THE KING’S SPEECH”. Perhaps I had exaggerated a bit. There were a few awards that I believe it deserved. I found Ludovic Bource’s score surprisingly impressive. I was also impressed by Mark Bridges’ award winning costume designs and Guillaume Schiffman’s nominated cinematography. And I cannot deny that I was more than impressed by Jean Dujardin’s performance as the ego-centric George Valentin. Did he deserve the Best Actor award? Personally, I would have given Gary Oldman’s performance in “TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY” the award. But I still believe that Dujardin gave an above-average performance. The movie also featured supporting performances and cameos from Hollywood veterans such as John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller. I thought they all gave solid performances, especially Miller and Cromwell.

Despite my feelings about the costumes, photography, the score and Dujardin’s performance, I still believe that “THE ARTIST”is an overrated movie that did not deserve most of the accolades it received. For me, it was a charming little movie with gimmicks about Old Hollywood. I would equate it at the same level as Blake Edwards’ 1988 Hollywood mystery, “SUNSET”. Okay, perhaps I am being a little cruel. Even “THE ARTIST” is better than Edwards’ film. But I find myself unable to view it as a cinematic masterpiece. For me, it was simply an entertaining, yet mediocre film.

One of the problems I had with “THE ARTIST” was that Hazanavicius’ script never explained why Valentin refused to do a talking picture. Why? Unlike Charlie Chaplin, he was not originally described as a multi-tasked Hollywood talent. Valentin was never regarded as another Emil Jennings, whose Hollywood career ended due to a thick European accent. Granted, Dujardin’s French accent struck me as somewhat thick, but it was never pointed out. And if the Valentin character really had a thick accent, his Hollywood career would have never been revived as a song-and-dance man at the movie’s conclusion. Even Fred Astaire needed a decent voice. Nor was Valentin portrayed as a another John Gilbert, whose career was destroyed by a studio boss that hated his guts. Granted, Valentin managed to annoy Zimmer in his refusal to accept talkies. But Zimmer merely regarded Valentin with mild contempt, not hatred. In the end, Valentin’s refusal to do talkies was never really explored. And this strikes me as bad writing on Hazanavicius’ part.

The movie earned a good deal of controversy when Hollywood icon Kim Novak accused composer Ludovic Bource of incorporating a portion of Bernard Herrmann’s score from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film “VERTIGO”. Since I have never seen“VERTIGO”, I cannot comment on Novak’s accusation. However, I have seen “A STAR IS BORN”“SUNSET BOULEVARD”, and“SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN”. I noticed that “THE ARTIST” incorporated a great deal of story ideas and scenes from these movies. Unfortunately, I believe that Hazanavicius did so in an unoriginal way. Even the happy-go-lucky “SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” had ten times the biting wit and a more in-depth, if slightly fictional looking into the transition to sound. Perhaps the reason I found the story hard to accept was because Hazanavicius decided to film the movie without sound. All I can say is . . . why? What was the point? I wanted a look at Old Hollywood during the late 1920s and early 1930s, not a gimmicky ode to the era.

“THE ARTIST” possessed other aspects that did not sit well with me. Hazanavicius cast his wife, French-Argentine actress Bérénice Bejo, to portray rising star Peppy Miller. Bejo received numerous nominations and a César Award for Best Actress for her performance. I cannot deny that she gave a first-rate performance. Unfortunately, she seemed like a 21st century anchorism, stuck in the early 20th century. Bejo simply looked out of place in period movie like “THE ARTIST”. Valentin’s Jack Russell terrier, Uggie, was so cute that I found myself in danger of a sugar overdose, just by simply watching. After viewing the scene in which Uggie saved Valentin from a burning house by summoning a police, I either wanted to throw up or put a bullet in that mutt. As much as I enjoyed Mark Bridges’ late 1920s costumes, I was not impressed by the costumes for the movie’s 1930s setting. Looking at Bridges’ costumes for the early sound era, I found it hard to believe that the film’s second half was set between 1930 and 1932/33. Many people enjoyed Dujardin and Bejo’s dance routine that marked the film’s conclusion. I cannot deny that I found their performance impressive. But it was also a jaw-dropping moment for me . . . and not in a good way. My mind kept reminding me that I should be applauding. Instead, I found myself silently chanting – “What the hell?”

Look, I am not claiming to dislike “THE ARTIST”. How could I? I thought it was an entertaining film about Old Hollywood. It seemed a lot of fun. But a fun movie does not automatically it make a great one. And despite the awards and accolades that it received, I cannot agree with the prevailing view that “THE ARTIST” was a great film. Not by a long shot.