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April 20, 2014
David Kalat
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Alfred Hitchcock’s Half-Formed Grab Bag

There are some directors who make their breakout hits early in their careers.  Their landmark films announce the arrival of an important new talent by showcasing distinctive visual or thematic ideas—but these marks of distinction can also serve to limit that filmmaker’s future growth.  Their subsequent films can’t help but be compared to their early classics, and after a while they risk being accused of simply repeating familiar motifs, cobbling together pastiches and Greatest Hits collections.

Not Alfred Hitchcock.  Not only did his later works like Marnie or Topaz veer wildly away from anything in that career that preceded them, it’s in his early films that we find what might be called pastiches—only these are pastiches not of past glories, but patchworks of the masterpieces yet unmade.

Consider Secret Agent.  It’s a 1936 wartime spy thriller (bet you couldn’t guess that from the title, huh?) based on some stories by Somerset Maugham, and made for Michael Balcon and Ivor Montagu during Hitch’s British period.

It is by no means one of Hitchcock’s greats—even in 1936, it was only voted the fifth best British movie.  But it’s a template for almost everything great Hitchcock did after it.

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KEYWORDS: Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Lorre, secret agents
COMMENTS: 4
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April 19, 2014
David Kalat
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Occupy Fritz Lang

There is a secret conspiracy that rules the world.

This hidden power can make or break a fortune at a moment’s whim.  It decrees the rise and fall of nations.  It chooses who lives, and who dies.

There are some—like the heroic British spy with a number for a name, or the alluring Mata Hari-like international woman of mystery he keeps running into—who think they can use the tools of surveillance, cryptography, and overall spookcraft to expose this obscure force and save the world.

Wanna know a secret?  This secret power—he’s a banker.  You can Occupy Wall Street all you want: the Great Banker is the spider at the heart of this massive web, and he will outlast you all.

So, yeah, for a silent movie made in Germany in 1928, there’s a lot going on here.  You can play along at home if you want when TCM runs this later tonight.

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KEYWORDS: Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, spies
COMMENTS: 4
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January 25, 2014
David Kalat
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George C. Scott unwittingly trained a dolphin to kill the President of the United States

Mike Nichols was a veteran comedy director of stage and screen, not to mention a comedy performer of no small renown.  He would go on to become of the few people to win an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and a Tony (the fabled EGOT)—all but the Emmy being won for his comedy work.

Buck Henry was a prolific comedy writer whose career had taken him from the writing staff of The Steve Allen Show to co-creating Get Smart with Mel Brooks to updating Howard Hawks’ screwball classic Bringing Up Baby for a new generation under the title What’s Up Doc?  In the years to come he would become a recurring host of Saturday Night Live, a contributor to The Daily Show and a guest star on 30 Rock.

Together they had collaborated on The Graduate, and Catch 22.  They had a contractual obligation to producer Joseph E. Levine for a third film—and so in 1973 Mike Nichols and Buck Henry made a paranoid conspiracy thriller about a plot to use talking dolphins to assassinate the President.  This is a not a joke.

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KEYWORDS: Buck Henry, George C. Scott, Mike Nichols, The Day of the Dolphin
COMMENTS: 12
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Telefilm Time Machine: Home for the Holidays (1972)

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Eleanor Parker in 1972

The holidays can be a very difficult time for some. I know from firsthand experience that when you don’t have any family to rely on or any kind of financial security to speak of Christmas can feel like a national nightmare inhabited by drunken revelers, crazed shoppers and merciless merchants. This is only compounded by what author Anthony Trollope once called “the perils of winter.” More folks tend to die during the winter months than any other time of the year so when you’re coping with the death of a loved one or a life threatening illness the pressure to remain “merry and bright” can become wearisome and demoralizing. I mention all of this because one of my favorite telefilms seems to perfectly capture the darker aspects of the holidays that are so often swept under the rug. Throughout 2013 I’ve spotlighted a few of my favorite made-for-TV movies so it seems appropriate to conclude this unofficial series with a look at HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972), a surprisingly grim and suspenseful Christmas themed thriller that also happens to star Eleanor Parker who recently passed away at the age of 91.

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The unexpected comedy stylings of Alfred Hitchcock

A while back, when I was preparing the audio commentary for To Be Or Not To Be, I found myself making repeated allusions and references to Foreign Correspondent. The more I made them, the more I found them not just useful but essential–and before long I had started to discover an entire network of deep structure connecting the two films. Not all of that was relevant to a discussion of To Be Or Not To Be, and the commentary track was already overstuffed so I had to jettison some material. This month’s celebration of Hitchcock seems a perfect opportunity to explore Foreign Correspondent‘s secret twinship with To Be Or Not To Be. (Sorry I couldn’t align this with last week’s cablecast of Foreign Correspondent–I wanted to get the Edwin S. Porter post in as close to the start of The Story of Film cycle as possible)

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Oh Dear! What Can the Matter Be?

jsimmons“Oh dear! What can the matter be?
Dear! Dear! What can the matter be?
Oh Dear! What can the matter be?
Johnny’s so long at the fair.

He promised he’d buy me a fairing should please me,
And then for a kiss, Oh! He vow’d he would tease me;
He promised he’d bring me a bunch of blue ribbons,
To tie up my bonny brown hair. ”
– Author unknown, 1793

British director Terence Fisher is best known for his work with Hammer Films but before he started making movies for the studio that dripped blood, Fisher edited and co-directed a number of films for Gainsborough Pictures. One of his most accomplished early directorial efforts is SO LONG AT THE FAIR (1950) starring a very young Jean Simmons and Dirk Bogarde. This absorbing thriller isn’t available on DVD in the US but SO LONG AT THE FAIR will air this coming Sunday (July 28th) on TCM at 7:15 PM PST and 10:15 PM EST. Fans of well-acted period dramas and good gothic mysteries should consider tuning in but the film will be of particular interest to anyone curious about the origins of modern British horror cinema.

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Will the real Sherlock Holmes please stand up?

I’m going to wind up my exploration of pulp mysteries with the ultimate pulp detective of them all—Sherlock Holmes.  And for any of my regular readers, the fact that I’ve chosen Zero Effect with Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller instead of the more obvious selections like Hound of the Baskervilles shouldn’t be a surprise.  And, just like when we looked at Warren Beatty as an ersatz James Bond back in the discussion of Kaleidoscope, the only way we get to such unlikely casting is by examining an unauthorized project from the margins.

As it happens, it is that aspect of Zero Effect—its status as an authorized adaptation—that is the focal point of our story this week.  So—click to open the fold and let’s take a journey through the tangled jungle of Sherlock Holmes’ complicated rights issues.

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Fantomas Strikes Back

Having brought up Dr. Mabuse recently, naturally my thoughts also flit to Fantômas.  I had promised a while back that I would eventually address Andre Hunebelle’s 1960s Fantômas revival in this blog, and now seems the best time to live up to my word.  Along with last week’s visit to Dr. Mabusiana, I’m going to spend the next several weeks exploring the world of pulp mysteries on film—specifically how different filmmakers have approached the task of rendering in cinematic terms a corpus of literature that flourished in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The Hunebelle Fantômas films are not readily available for viewing.  It is the case that anyone with an Amazon account can obtain a DVD box set of the entire trilogy—but this import set will come without English subtitles and will only be playable in a region-free player, so it’ll alienate most casual American viewers.  With that in mind, I’m going to be fairly heavy on clips this week, so give you a good sense of what these three films are really like.  I’ve added subtitles to these clips from an online source of fan-created subtitles.  Given the awkward wording, I’m guessing by “fan-subbed” they really mean “ran the French script through Google Translate and performed no proof-reading at all.”

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Hammer does Hitchcock

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been looking at secret Hitchcock remakes—movies that may or may not have taken direct inspiration from Hitchcock’s classics, but at least pretended they didn’t.  Those films attempt to stand on their own merits, independent of any comparisons to Hitchcock that their content might invite.

But we haven’t yet addressed the thorny mess of overt Hitchcock remakes—the ones that openly identify themselves as updates of movies made by the Master of Suspense.  Somehow that makes a significant difference—and the direct comparisons are never flattering.

So when we come to something like Hammer’s 1979 version of The Lady Vanishes, not only do we have the worrisome aspect of a direct Hitchcock remake, we also have the exceedingly problematic audience expectations generated by the phrase “Hammer does Hitchcock.”

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Hitchcock vs. Dracula

By sheer coincidence, in one of those warpings of reality that make people believe in Fate or powers greater than themselves, I happened to see Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt for the very first time just a few days after seeing The Return of Dracula.  And to quote Robert Frost, “that has made all the difference in the world.” 

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