Man on the run

August 23, 2010

Hitchcock’s 1935 film, The 39 Steps, has an innocent man on the run from the law and his nefarious pursuers, trying to unravel a mystery and clear his name.  He’s pretty darn cool about it too.  Despite being a Canadian, he maintains a British devil-may-care lightheartedness through it all.  And he navigates some pretty racy situations as well.

He gets into the mess when an attractive woman bumps into him as the audience flees a theatre, and she asks to go home with him – she’s frightened.  At home, over dinner, she reveals that she is a spy, motivated by cash, not patriotism.  Somehow, she gets stabbed in his apartment, and he has to flee and uncover the murderers to clear his name.  In the course of his run for freedom, he encounters a train compartment with two traveling salesmen of ladies undergarments.  Then, to elude the police, he breaks into a compartment where the sole occupant is a pretty woman, and proceeds to kiss her passionately after begging her not to give him up.  The cops are reluctant to interrupt their embrace, but finally do, and she…so unromantic…tells them, “Here’s the man you want.”

Later, by chance, he finds himself joined up with her again, by the wrists in which they are handcuffed.  There are many amusing and sexy passages in which they must occupy a bed together, she peels off her wet, cold stockings, which he solicitously hangs to dry by the fire, and posing as eloping lovers for a credulous innkeeper.  I thought this woman was married to a minor player in the drama, but maybe she was always an available love interest.

A few images:

After she turns him in to the cops, they pull the emergency break and he has a narrow escape on the Firth of Forth Bridge, “that marvel of Scottish engineering,” as he remarks in an off the cuff speech he finds himself required to give.

Holed up in a country inn, he tells tall tales of his criminal past.  She begins to think he might be telling the truth.  Could a murderer be so charming and funny?

Another Hitchcock climax in a theatre, but a little down-market from the Albert Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Led away by the cops, the hero demands of Mr. Memory, “Tell us, what is the meaning of the 39 Steps?

He replies automatically, and the denoument is almost done…

At one point in his flight, the hero finds himself in the wings of a theatre while a speaker who is expected momentarily is introduced.  The chairman of the meeting mistakes him for the speaker, and to escape his pursuers, he takes the podium and gives a rousing political talk without knowing whom he is endorsing or what topic he is to speak on.  [Surely, an acerbic take on Depression Era politicos.]  The sequence is echoed, intentionally or not, but The Third Man, when the hapless Holly Martins finds himself spirited away to a literary meeting – at first he thinks he’s being kidnapped – where he has to speak about modern novels, something about which he knows next to nothing.  And finally, I am reminded of the sequence in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie when the characters find themselves on stage in a theatre, apparently the characters in play before an audience, but they don’t know their lines.

The Birds

March 14, 2010

The Birds, a Hitchcock film from 1963 with Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren – love that film!  But that’s not the subject of my post today.  It’s this report on The State of the Birds, 2010, issued by the Interior Department.  This is the press release headline at the link:

Secretary Salazar Releases New “State of the Birds” Report Showing Climate Change Threatens Hundreds of Species
Austin, TX–Climate change threatens to further imperil hundreds of species of migratory birds, already under stress from habitat loss, invasive species and other environmental threats, a new report released today by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar concludes.

Reading through this notice of key findings, I see that it is the same as many others I read in press releases and article abstracts.  Climate change is happening, and it’s having bad effects on our environment.  This seems to be a good example of climate bandwagon-ism. Everything is, and must be shown to be related to the threat posed by climate change.  Beat the drum loudly! Consider the key findings (emphasis mine):

  • Oceanic birds are among the most vulnerable species because they don’t raise many young each year… and they nest on islands that may be flooded as sea levels rise. All 67 oceanic bird species…are among the most vulnerable birds on Earth to climate change.

Okay, but what if climate predictions are wrong?  Fact is, these birds are threatened by a lot of things now!

  • Hawaiian birds … already face multiple threats and are increasingly challenged by mosquito-borne diseases and invasive species as climate change alters their native habitats.

The assumption is that global climate change has altered their habitat and will continue to do so, presumably at ever increasing rates.  I wonder how much worse the threats will be than they are already?

  • Birds in coastal, arctic/alpine, and grassland habitats…show intermediate levels of vulnerability; most birds in aridlands, wetlands, and forests show relatively low vulnerability to climate change.

Just for the record, this accounts for most species, not that those minority bird populations aren’t important!

  • For bird species that are already of conservation concern… the added vulnerability to climate change may hasten declines or prevent recovery.

Like the poor people of the world, the species that are in trouble now are the most likely to suffer most when anything changes and makes life a bit more difficult.

  • The report identified common bird species … that are likely to become species of conservation concern as a result of climate change.

Aren’t these species in habitats that are least likely to be affected?  So, from among these “safer” species, the report picks out the ones that have the  greatest likelihood of showing some stress, when that climate change kicks in as we all know it will…must!  Just wondering, how much of a risk is “of concern..?”  Have to read the report.

After the listing of Key Findings, there is this:

    “All of the effective bird conservation efforts already taking place to protect rare species, conserve habitats, and remove threats need to be continued,” said David Mehlman of The Nature Conservancy. “Additionally, they need to be greatly expanded to meet the threat climate change poses to bird populations.”

Bravo for that!  Yes, I am all for maintaining and expanding our efforts to conserve bird populations, bird habitat, and species diversity.  What does climate change have to do with it?  Why bring it in other than to try and build concern…hysteria?

Okay, they are bureaucrats, and they write reports.  So, let’s see what they’ve given us:

Many bird populations are threatened now by human settlement patterns.  Birds that have insecure populations now will be less secure if climate change occurs as predicted.  We may see birds that are common now show some stress if climate changes occur as predicted.  If climate change occurs as predicted, our present efforts to stabilize bird populations may not be as effective as hoped.

That’s it.  May, might, if…Now this report will start turning up in arguments that use it to prove that AGW is a clear and present danger to human and biosphere health!  We are already such a destructive force in the biosphere that computer models of climate change are the last thing birds should be worrying about.  They should be more concerned about how they will look in the planned remake of Hitchcock’s gem!

Le boucher préhistorique

March 6, 2010

Le boucher is rated by many as Chabrol’s best.  The blurb on my DVD even went so far as to rate it as one of the world’s greatest films of all time.  I liked it less than his others I have seen.  In some ways, it seems to touch the limits of the auteur way of cinema, and what people have written about it shows how faddishly intellectual many critics are.

In his usual precise, refined, and exquisitely minimalist way, Chabrol tells us the story of two people in a beautiful provincial town who form an unlikely couple.  He is the town butcher – unpretentious, charming in a bluff way, friendly and warm, and obviously, to us, the viewers, but apparently to nobody else, deeply troubled by his life experience, especially his years in the army fighting France’s colonial rearguard actions.  He knows all about blood, from his job and the army.  She is a classy and educated beauty from…Paris, perhaps, who is the school mistress.  She’s young for the job, but very capable.  She has self-confidence, manners, and a great wardrobe.  They meet at the wedding of one of her teachers and become friendly.  Seems like he is more into her than she is into him, definitely.  In conversations, he makes more and more allusions to the horrors he’s seen, but she doesn’t bat an eye – seems scarcely interested.

That is the story, except that there are some grisly murders going on in town – a madman is on the loose.  Given the way films are, how can we not suspect the butcher of doing the bloody business?  Despite the many reviews that cite nail-biting suspense, I felt little.  I don’t think that is a fault of Chabrol’s – I don’t think he works that way, but it says a lot about his reviewers.  The real story is the relationship of these two, and how little we understand it.

On an outing to the woods, Popaul, the butcher, sounds  out Hélène, the schoolmistress on love and sex.  She isn’t interested – she was jilted years ago and prefers to be celibate.  He says being without sex can make you crazy, and he is disgusted by her remark that there are ”other ways.”  She just doesn’t want to take the risk – then she gives him a birthday present of an unusual cigarette lighter.  (How did she know it was his birthday?)

When Hélène discovers the body of her teacher’s wife while on an outing with her class to the Cro-Magnon cave paintings nearby,  she finds the lighter that she gave Popaul, and conceals it.  I believe that this is a key moment in the film, and I was  surprised  that in the ten or twelve discussions of this film that I looked through, few mention it, or comment on its significance.  The reviewers are too busy discussing the nature of evil:  is the killer responsible for his deeds, or did society (the war) make him do it?  Only one Everyman reviewer hit on a key question:

The wife and me couldn’t make head nor tail of this movie. The schoolteacher doesn’t want no love or kissing. But she seems to like the butcher well enough. She even gives him a present. . .Now when the school teacher finds the cigarette lighter next to the body, it bothered her some. But she doesn’t do nothing! I never have been a lawyer, but I would say that makes her an accessory to a crime.

Later, she has dinner with Popaul, and he produces the lighter when she pulls out a cigarette.  She recognizes  it and begins sobbing with relief – that means he didn’t do it.  He has the lighter.  He offers to leave, and she says, “No, I need you!”  Finally, while painting her room as a favor, Popaul discovers his lighter in her drawer and realizes that she found it at the crime scene.  He takes it!  Then he comes back to kill her, confesses his madness, his love for her, and stabs himself.  She takes him on a long drive to the hospital, punctuated by his running chat about his obsessions, his lover for her, how only she could help him.  She is extraordinarily cool, hardly seems concerned.  He dies.  She looks at the river – what is she thinking?  Close call?  What have I done?  I’m all alone now?  No clue…

Hmm… Why did he take the lighter?  He couldn’t guess that she was perfectly willing to let him stay free, slashing girls, as long as he would be good company to her and not try and get her into bed.  Many reviewers raise the issue of whether Hélène is responsible for his crimes by refusing his request for love.  After all a man ain’t nothin’ but a man, and if he can’t get no lovin’, who knows what he gonna do!  Basic needs, savage substrate beneath civilized veneer…all fluff and window dressing I say.  To the extent that Chabrol intended to convey those facile ideas, he veered onto the wrong track.

No, the commenter had it right.  Hélène is the accomplice, and is responsible.  Not because she didn’t want to go to bed with him – why should she?  Doesn’t she have the right to live singly if she wants?  My guess is that a lot of reviewers think she does not, think that this is unnatural.  Hah!  Probably they wish they were in bed with Stéphane Audran!  Nope, she is responsible because she is a deeply selfish and amoral person who is unperturbed by the fact that she left a murderer loose to kill an innocent woman just so she could carry on with a relationship that satisfied her.  Popaul is pathetic and mad, she is truly frightening.  This is the underhanded brilliance of the film, but I think a lot of critics have missed it with their preoccupation with social criticism, class mores, conventionality, the violence that underlies all culture, yada, yada, yada…

Or…is Vincent Canby correct when he says:

I find it impossible to accept the suggestion that Chabrol ultimately makes, that is, that Mile. Hélène could have saved the psychotic killer from himself had she not been afraid to love, and that, by withholding her love, she is in some way as much of a beast as he is, fit to be condemned to eternal loneliness.

Not sure who is outfoxing whom in this maze, but it seems to me that Chabrol is not suggesting that she is beast for simply withholding her love for the reasons that I suggest.  Why else would he be so insistent on the point, through the police inspector, that if no clue is found, more women will die, and that if she has anything at all of interest, she should contact him immediately.  Not to mention that he compliments her on her remarkable sang froid when she found the cropse.  She knows what she is doing, or might be doing, and she does it anyway.  Her real crime is quite pedestrian after all, and says little about the state of civilization.  When Popaul faces her with a knife, she closes her eyes.  If he kills her, she knows she deserves it.  He’s actually a better person than she, so he kills himself.

I said that this film hints at the limit of the auteur.  After feasting on Chabrol, I feel the need for some industrialized entertainment.  One man, one intellectual, one vision, one set of obsessions…not the only way to do art.  Hitchcock famously said that this is one of two films he wished he’d made.  I sort of wish he had too.  His blood curdling humor and total lack of intellectual hobbyhorses might have made for a more powerful tale.

Les Biches – Chabrol (1968)

March 4, 2010

Got to hand it to Chabrol, he knew how to keep politics and art separate when he wanted to.  1968, and what does he make, a jewel-like exercise in psychological storytelling.

Les Biches means, the does, or fawns, and also the girls, or chicks, with connotations of bad girls.  One is a street artist who draws fawns on the sidewalk, and is picked up by Stéphane Audran, a rich, bored, bi-sexual ice queen.  The other girl is a bit of cipher, and she becomes absorbed by, and obsessed with the identity of her keeper.  There’s a bit of Hitchcock’s Vertigo here – one woman being transformed into another, albeit from very different motives.  There’s not much suspense – the end is clearly foreshadowed early on – and the male character in this dysfunctional ménage is rather ambiguous:  what will he do at the end when he arrives to find that the double has killed his lover…accept her as a replacement?

The cool, precise aesthetic that is the draw of this film struck me forcibly during this brief sequence showing Frédéric rising from her bed, dressed in immaculate white pyjamas, in her rather spartan bedroom.  Look at how she gets up – she doesn’t bend her back at all!  Her posture is ramrod straight.  It looks as if she is sliding off the bed quite naturally, but every element of her movement is controlled and thought out, like a model, an actress, a creation.

This blogger gives an extended treatment in the same vein to the climactic murder scene, focusing on the precise camera work and editing of Chabrol.


The Lady Vanishes

October 5, 2009


Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938) reminded me of Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel in a way.  A group of middle-class people find themselves in a nightmare world bounded by the edge of a room, or railway car, from which they cannot escape.  This one has a happy ending.

The movie gets off to such a slow and corny start, I almost gave up on it.  There’s the rich playgirl, getting ready to return to London to settle down according to Daddy’s wishes, and marry a “check-chasing blueblood.” A pair of stereotypical, cricket-obsessed Brits who keep up a steady idiotic patter, a charming, handsome, and brash musicologist  studying local folksongs, and a slightly batty old English lady governess.  They are all trapped by an avalanche in a remote backwater of some fictional central-European country, waiting for their train connection back to England.

off_to_marriage    not_cricket

Once on the train, the playgirl and the governess become friendly, and when the girl wakes up from a snooze, the old lady is gone.  Simply gone.  Everybody claims to have never seen her!  It becomes a somewhat labored cat-and-mouse game between the girl and the passengers:  she trying to get evidence that the woman did exist; they implying or saying straight out that she’s crazy.  A bit of physical evidence convinces the music man, and they make a team.  It turns out that the passengers are in a conspiracy to abduct and kill the old lady with an elaborate switcheroo involving a fake medical expert, a nun in black high-heeled pumps, and an Italian circus performer.  Then it gets weird.

After the heroes rescue the governess, the bad guys separate the train cars and direct the passengers and the engine onto a small line that runs into the forest.  They stop the train and surround the car with armed men.  After a failed ruse to get the passengers to disembark, they direct a fusillade at the car.  Why are all these people suddenly fighting for their lives in the middle of nowhere, trapped in a rail car, simply because of some old lady? 

A pretty woman with her lover, both fleeing spouses, demands that her man use his gun to defend them.  He thinks it’s all insane – the only sensible thing is to surrender and explain everything.  She grabs his gun and starts firing.  The two Brits rise to the occasion, without visible emotion of course, and turn out to be crack shots.  One grabs the pretty lady’s gun saying, “I’ll put it to better use,” and proceeds to pick off the attackers.  With each shot, the woman starts with fear while he, surveying the situation, calmly remarks, “I’m sure that there’s a rational –bang!– explanation – bang! – for all of this.”  Indeed there is.

use_the_Gun   a_rational_explanation

Happily returned to London, the playgirl abandons her gold-digging fiancé and surrenders to the ill mannered, but charming music man in an embrace that is not what I expect from a Hitchcock film

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