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Monthly Archives: December 2017

Movie Crash Course: Blackmail

Why, hello, Mr. Hitchcock. I wasn’t expecting to meet you so soon.

Blackmail wasn’t Hitchcock’s first-ever film – he actually did six other silent films before this one.  This was originally meant to be a silent film as well – but midway through production, the studio asked Hitchcock to make it a sort of half-way talkie, with only one or two scenes scored with incidental sound and some dialogue and the rest of the film covered with intertitles. But Hitchcock was reluctant, partly because he thought the idea of a half-talkie, half-silent film was pretty stupid.  If you’re going to use sound, use sound through the whole thing, dammit – and that’s what he wanted to do.

However, Hitchcock had another problem. His lead actress, Anny Ondra, was a Czech émigré who had a very thick accent. It hadn’t been a problem for Ondra in the days of silent films, but for talkies, she was nigh-incomprehensible.  She was the lead, however, and it was too late to recast.  But Hitchcock was determined to turn the whole film into a talkie – so he hired a second actress, Joan Barry, to speak the lines off camera during each scene, while Ondra lip-synced her way through the whole film.  It works better than you’d think; I didn’t know this detail before watching the film, and was tremendously surprised to learn that, as I hadn’t noticed anything amiss.  At most, Ondra’s performance seemed a little stilted for the first few scenes, but that was it; when the story really picks up, Ondra’s emotive face carries the day, and I didn’t notice anything amiss at all.

And the story really picks up for Ondra/Barry’s character.  She/they play Alice White, a London shopgirl and the steady girlfriend of junior detective Frank Webber. But Alice is getting a bit bored with Frank; she picks a fight with him while out on a date early in the film, because she secretly has arranged to meet up that same night with another fellow who’s caught her eye.  When Frank storms off in a huff, she scurries over to her second date with Mr. Crewe, a dashing painter who lives on her street.  He invites her to come check out his studio and his paintings – but Crewe has some ulterior motives, and won’t take “no” for an answer, even though Alice is very much opposed to the idea of hooking up.  During the struggle, a panicked Alice grabs a knife from a nearby cheese plate and stabs him.

That’s where the story really picks up, believe it or not.  A panicked Alice tries to cover her tracks, but Frank – who is conveniently on the squad assigned to the case – discovers her glove left behind on the scene. He secretly pockets it, and goes to Alice to get her side of things and maybe figure out how to get her off. But unfortunately for both Frank and Alice, there was a witness – at least, someone who saw Alice following Crewe home, and also saw her leaving all by herself.  Instead of going to the police, though, our witness Mr. Tracey has decided to blackmail the pair.

And that leads to the scene that I felt was the most gripping.  It’s a wholly psychological showdown; Tracey has been toying with Alice and Frank for most of the morning, as Alice is wracked with guilt over her actions. But Frank gets word that Scotland Yard now suspects Tracey himself of the act – he’d been trying to blackmail Crewe over something wholly different, and had just left a subtly threatening message for him with the landlady.  Frank locks himself and Alice in a room with Tracey, then springs the news.  And for the next several minutes there is a three-way standoff – Tracey taunts Frank with the point that Alice’s involvement looks shady, while Frank taunts him back with the point that so does Tracey’s; while Alice, the only one who knows what really happened, is torn between letting Tracey take the fall, or fessing up.  It’s a deliciously suspenseful scene, even though it’s only a few minutes long.

From what little I know about Hitchcock, that suspense was his signature. But Hitchcock also did some nifty things to play up Alice’s state of mind immediately after the stabbing – including a scene (linked here) where a gossipy neighbor stops by the shop to discuss the murder.  She has a lengthy monologue about how shocking a murder by stabbing is in principle; but after only a few seconds, Hitchcock pans to Alice’s face and fades the sound down on her speech – except for the word “knife”, which she perversely repeats over and over, making Alice increasingly jumpy each time.

So yeah, I dug this.

…On a general note – I’d like to raise a toast to the fact that it was a year ago today that I posted my first review in this series.  46 down, about 1,100 to go!


(Welcome to those visiting from the Rule, Britannia Blogathon!  This is part of my ongoing effort to watch all the films from every edition of the “1001 Movies To See Before You Die” books.)


Need A Long Winter’s Nap

I have the whole week off work this week, and am staying in town – devoting the time to a long-overdue clearing-out of closets, cupboards, and other dark corners of the house.  I started with the pantry, so I could then better plan the grocery shopping and maybe even be organized enough to start being super-organized enough to do meal planning.  …So far, so good – I discovered I had enough random odds and ends to make a lovely sausage and canellini soup for lunch today, with leftovers.

The pantry was the first hurdle – I pulled everything out of it and laid it out on all the tables, shelves, and such around my living room, carefully writing everything down and making some amazing discoveries (“Why do I have a package of mochi flour?”….”Oh, shit, I forgot I already had this marzipan, I didn’t need to buy any last month after all,”….”oh hey, I have corn flour, maybe I can try making my own tortillas”).  After wiping down the counter and dutifully logging everything, I started to put it all away, with a more organized system – random Asian ingredients on this shelf, liquid sweeteners on that one…

…And I went to put away my sugar. And couldn’t find it.  Which was bizarre, because my sugar canister is a bright yellow plastic tub, big enough to hold an entire five-pound bag of sugar.

I looked at all the tables.  I looked under them.  I checked behind chairs.  No sugar.  I looked on the floor in my living room, in all the corners.  No sugar.  Did I maybe put it in the bathroom?….I’d fetched a spray cleaner to wipe down the cupboard, maybe I’d distractedly brought it in there.  I checked – no sugar.  Maybe I put it in the fridge?….Nope.  Maybe….in my room, because I was running out of room?  Nope.  In the hall closet?  Nope.  Any of the other kitchen cupboards?  Nope.

I re-checked the living room.  Re-checked the kitchen.  Re-checked the fridge.  My room.  The bathroom.  The hall closet.  The kitchen cupboards. No sugar.

I remembered reading that saying the name of the thing you’re looking for makes you more likely to spot it – it’s a hack for your brain.  So I then re-traced all my steps, muttering “sugar, sugar sugar sugar”.  Nothing.  I did it again – “sugar, sugar, sugar, SUGAR goddammit”.  Nothing.  I tried invoking St. Anthony, Catholic patron saint of lost objects – “Help me out here, St. Anthony, I’m losing my mind looking for this motherfucking sugar.”

Yes, I cussed at St. Anthony. I was not quite in my right mind.

All told I spent a good 20 minutes fruitlessly wandering in circles around my apartment bleating out “sugar!” and getting more and more frustrated. How in the hell could I have misplaced a five-pound tub of sugar in a two bedroom apartment, when I had only been in one room of that apartment?

I got desperate. Only a second set of eyes could help, I thought – I had clearly somehow developed a weird tunnel vision, and someone else would probably walk in and see it right away.  I swallowed my pride, and called my friend Colin – sometimes he picks up art supplies in my neighborhood, so I was going to beg him that if he was going on a supplies run today, maybe he could come by and help me find my sugar.

I braced myself while the phone was ringing, trying to figure out how I was going to explain this one.  Colin answered, and right as I was taking a breath to make my plea – I happened to finally look up instead of down.

There was the sugar, sitting on a bookshelf.

“….Hello?” Colin asked, tenatively, when I didn’t speak.

“Um. Hi.” I said.  “Well, I was initially going to ask you a favor, but it literally just resolved itself right now, so I instead have a funny story.”

Colin laughed uproariously after I told him everything, and then suggested that maybe I should go back to sleep.


Movie Crash Course: The Thief of Bagdad

Yikes, apologies for the long delay.  I just noticed my last review was nearly two weeks ago – due, in part, to the usual holiday harried schedule we all keep.  However, I think it may also be in part due to the review itself – the review for The Thief of Bagdad was feeling like it would be a chore.

Not because it was awful, mind you. There’s some simple charm – Douglas Fairbanks stars as a carefree pickpocket, cavorting his way through Bagdad as the film starts and living in the moment. When he’s hungry he sneaks onto balconies where he sees cooking food and helps himself.  When he’s broke he picks pockets or cons people out of their jewelry. He thumbs his nose at the law and mocks the imams at the mosque, having the time of his life.

That all changes the night he tries breaking into the sultan’s house, intending to rob his safe – instead, he blunders into the bedchamber of princess. He tries taking her maid hostage, demanding she lead him to the safe – but then sees the princess herself and is instantly smitten.  Coincidentally, the princess is of marriagble age, and the sultan has put the call out inviting a series of princes to the palace so they can court her; our hero disguises himself (thanks to some pilfered finery) and joins the frey, and the princess takes a shine to him as well.

The princess’ maid recognizes him, though, and turns him in.  He is sentenced to execution, but the princess bribes the guards to let him go.  Then, to buy time and give him a chance to earn his way back into the sultan’s good graces, she announces that she wants her would-be suitors to go on a seven-month quest for treasure – whoever has the rarest prize when they get back will win her hand.

It’s a total fairytale of a story; like The Adventures of Prince Achmed, it borrows heavily from the “Thousand and One Nights” series of tales, with Bagdad presented as a neverland of exotic clothes and pious wise imams, ornate palaces and charmingly roguish thieves.  There is even a moral lesson, when Fairbanks’ thief finally turns to the imam for help and is told that the labor he undergoes to find the treasure will “turn you into a prince”, for “true happiness must be earned”.  It’s indeed a nice sentiment – but then, because this is a fairy tale, the imam also then tells him about a truly rare treasure and gives him a couple hints about how to get past the magic macguffin guarding it.

And I think that that’s ultimately why I’m lukewarm on this; it’s a fairy tale, and I’m not a fairy tale person as such.  It’s fun to watch Douglas Fairbanks – who is clearly having the time of his life in this, swinging from ropes and scaling walls and getting into fights with imaginary underwater beasts, swashing and buckling his way through the whole film. And the film itself looks pretty, with lavish sets and exotic-looking costumes.  It’s just that Fairbanks’ fun is in support of a story that ultimately didn’t grab me itself.

It’d be a fun film to show your kids on “old movie night”, but not anything I personally would re-watch.

Movie Crash Course: School Holiday Notice

(tiptoes in)

Hi all, I realized I should have said something:  I’m kind of saying offline until I can see the latest Star Wars movie so as to avoid spoilers.  Next review coming soon.

(tiptoes out)

Movie Crash Course: The Eagle

I finally got my hands on a couple of older films, so we’re jumping back a few years: The Eagle, my list’s only entry featuring screen idol Rudolph Valentino.

Here, Valentino is a young Russian soldier, Vladimir Dubrosky, who catches the eye of Czarina Catherine the Great. She invites him to the palace one evening, presumably to discuss his promotion – but then she comes on to him, and a flustered Vladimir flees.  The incensed Catherine declares him a fugitive and calls for his arrest for “desertion” – forcing Vlad to scurry back home.  Where he finds that his father has lost the family estate to their neighbor Kyrilla, and has just died. Tough day.

Vlad vows revenge, and he and his father’s men take up a sort of Robin-Hood existence in the woods – donning black masks and stalking Kyrilla’s family. Before long, Vlad has the perfect opportunity fall into his lap – Kyrilla’s pretty daughter Mascha is in the market for a French tutor, so Vlad dons a suit and presents himself as a candidate.  In his role as tutor, he spends his days with the pretty Mascha while planting anonymous notes to Kyrilla around the house, meant to freak him out, keeping Kyrilla on edge until the day he finally decides to strike.  But the longer he waits, the more he gets caught up with Mascha, to the point he starts wondering whether revenge is worth it…

It’s a swashbuckling tale, with quests for vengeance, feats of derring-do and thrilling escapes, and it was pleasant enough to watch.  Actress Vilma Blanky has fine chemistry with Valentino, and Mascha’s character has a bit more agency than the usual silent film damsel – she figures out Vlad’s secret identity at one point, and sneaks into his room to leave him her own anonymous note of warning.

As for Valentino….Okay, can I admit something?  I really didn’t get the appeal. Valentino is indeed empirically screen-idol handsome, and he’s a fine enough actor in what was ultimately an okay plot. But I personally didn’t see anything that seemed worthy of the swooning admiration Valentino got from fans in the 1920s.  Then again, Valentino got more fangirling over his more exotic roles, like The Shiek (which I was actually surprised was absent from the list).  It’s possible the appeal was more about the exotic role itself.  He’s not the super-romantic fairy-tale shiek here – he’s a more down-to-earth swashbuckling Cossack.  But to my mind this is the more interesting plot anyway.

Movie Crash Course: Man With A Movie Camera

So this movie was….

Hmm.  I sincerely do not know how to finish that sentence.  “Experimental” and “avant-garde” spring to mind.  As do “non-linear”, “a product of its time” and “….weird”.

Actually, let’s go with what Man With A Movie Camera was in a literal sense.  It was a big passion project for Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov, who had been growing increasingly uncomfortable with the general direction that film was taking as an art form.  He’d been struck by Nanook of the North a few years prior, and its use of “real” footage of Inuit life; even though that film did set up some shots, it also contained some footage of true-to-life Inuit customs – things that Vertov would never have seen without film.  He was captivated by film’s ability to show people “real life” from far away.

However, instead of following the path into documentary, he feared the film industry was producing too much fiction and fantasy.  Even when there were movies about real events, like the  Battleship Potemkinfor instance, Vertov was disappointed to see filmmakers relying on re-creating and restaging events, rather than using footage of the event itself.  Or they would tell a fictional story about peasants instead of just filming the peasants.  Directors were getting stuck in studios, he feared; and he believed film could – and should – go anywhere.

Man With A Movie Camera was Vertov’s attempt to prove his point.  There’s no plot as such – it is simply a collection of footage Vertov shot, taking his camera to a variety of places in and around Soviet cities to show “real life”.  Shots of trolleys in Odessa are followed by footage of mannequins in storefronts, followed by a sequence of a woman getting out of bed and dressing for the day.   Shots of homeless men sleeping on benches are followed by footage of a woman giving birth, and later there are shots of women at an exercise class at a beach followed by shots of men reparing machines.

Vertov also uses some nascent “special effects” like split screens and odd camera angles, to further illustrate “what film can do”.  The whole film opens with a split-screen effect, giving the appearance of a tiny cameraman scaling to the top of a mountainous camera and setting up to begin filming:

That cameraman appears now and again throughout the film, to underscore Vertov’s point; riding in the back of a truck, camera in hand, or setting up at a beach, or striding down Moscow streets.

The only intertitle in the piece is a short manifesto statement at the beginning, where Vertov declares the film to be “AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE CINEMATIC COMMUNICATION Of visual phenomena”, without using intertitles, a plot, or set, or costumes, or any other of the conventions of theater.  Film could be a wholly different creature, Vertov believed.

For those expecting a conventional film – like the audiences of the time, and I suppose like me – it is a confusing document, and you do find yourself trying to grab onto a plot like you’re used to. About midway through, I realized this was actually more like the later experimental film Koyaanisqatsi – simply presenting an assortment of footage in an effort to wordlessly convey a message.  And in Vertov’s case, the message seems to simply be that such a film is possible.

Movie Crash Course: A Throw Of Dice

In a sense this film is one of the precursors to Bollywood – produced on location, with a cast of Indian actors instead of Europeans in makeup, and with lavish art direction and a huge cast.

Inspired by a story from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, A Throw of Dice is the story of two royal cousins, each with their own kingdom.  Ranjit is handsome and kind, but a bit of a gambling addict; Sohan also likes to gamble, but is more interested in thinking up ways to steal Sanjit’s kingdom.

One idea he has early on is to have his henchman “accidentally” shoot Ranjit during a tiger hunt – but as luck would have it, they’re near the forest home of a reclusive healer, living there with his daughter Sunita. Ranjit’s men bring him to the hermit, with Sohan tagging along out of “concern”.  He’s not too pleased to hear that Ranjit will recover – but meeting Sunita softens the blow for him.  Sunita isn’t that impressed with him, however.

Ranjit is a different story – she and Ranjit fall in love during his convalescence, and when he recovers enough to leave, she tags along, as his fiancée.  Sohan tries another scheme or two to win Sunita or discredit Ranjit, but wedding plans proceed nevertheless. Then the night before the wedding, Sohan shows up to present Ranjit with an early wedding gift – a beautiful game board and new dice.  And hey, he proposes, maybe they could try it out with a game. But why not make the stakes interesting – instead of just gambling for cash, how about…each other’s kingdoms?  Or….Sunita?

There’s a plot twist towards the end that resolves things satisfactorily. And that may be why I was ultimately “meh” on the story – it’s a love story with a satisfying ending, and I’ve never really been a fan of the love story as a genre.

This is not to say I didn’t like the film.  I didn’t looooove it, but it was certainly pretty to look at; the film makes frequent and lavish use of various sites in India, instead of the filmmakers trying to shoot everything on a back lot. There are also some tiny moments that caught my eye, like when Sunita – still adjusting to her new life – has arranged for a secluded tryst with Ranjit.  She happens to glance into awater jug she’s carrying, sees her reflection and is struck by it.

And I also found the backstory pretty impressive.  One of the biggest reasons A Throw of Dice used so much Indian locations and casting was because it was a truly Indian production. Himansu Rai, who played Sohan, co-produced the film along with German director Franz Osten.  Rai teamed up with Osten five years previously, when he traveled to Munich specifically seeking a partner for a unique film partnership – Rai had the cast, the locations, and the funding, but none of the technical expertise. Osten was able to provide the camera crew, the film, and the director (himself).  The pair collaborated on three films, effectively launching India’s entire film industry.