Thursday, December 15, 2016

FFB: Hitchcock Truffaut a book-length interview

A few days ago, when considering a post about film director Alfred Hitchcock’s original and his remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” I took an old book off my shelf to refresh my memory on a point or two. Once I started, I kept on reading. It is that kind of book.

The book is Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut, which was published in French in 1966 and in English in 1967.

Truffaut, a film director himself who burst onto the international scene in 1959 with his first film, “The 400 Blows,” was a leading light of the French New Wave. Before making movies, Truffaut critiqued films in the French press, including Cahiers du Cinéma, an influential film magazine founded by critic André Bazin.

Truffaut and his fellow New Wave filmmakers – Jean Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, and others – were fans of American directors like Howard Hawks, Sam Fuller, and Hitchcock. They found that certain Hollywood filmmakers were able to put a personal stamp of the films they made for the studios and showed a consistency in the kinds of stories they chose to tell and the way in which they approached the material.

Some directors, like John Ford, were reluctant to discuss their techniques. But Alfred Hitchcock was not. In fact, Hitchcock was happy to tell interviewers just what he looked for in a story and how, precisely, he made his movies – sometimes going shot by shot to explain his methods.

Truffaut invited Hitchcock to sit down for a series of interviews in which the younger man went through each of the old master’s movies, from his first efforts in the silent era, to his break through films, like “The Man who Knew Too Much,” to the two best films he made in England (in my opinion), “The 39 Steps” from 1936, and “The Lady Vanishes” from 1938.

Hitchcock talked about going to Hollywood and working with producer David O. Selznick – which he hated – and working with Cary Grant – which he liked. Hitchcock and Grant made four films together: “Suspicion,” “Notorious,” “To Catch A Thief,” and “North by Northwest.”

Another favorite star was James Stewart. Together they made four films: “Rope,” “Rear Window,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” and “Vertigo.”

He also loved working with Grace Kelly. In the book, Hitchcock told how he always had a thing for cool blonds. They made three films together: “Dial M for Murder,” “Rear Window,” and “To Catch a Thief.” The last of these was filmed on the Riviera. The following year, Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco and Hitchcock lost his favorite leading lady.

Truffaut’s book length interview with Hitchcock is a master class in film history and technique as the older director explained the language of film and how he used it.

Many have tried to use the master’s techniques, but no one yet as been able to beat Hitchcock at his own game.

(For more on books, see Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Monday, December 12, 2016

Hitchcock Times 2: Man Who Knew Too Much

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the few movie directors of the past who, decades after his death in 1980, is still well known.

In the 1950s, Hitchcock, at the height of his powers and popularity, remade one of his earlier films. Some might say Hitchcock remade many of his films, just giving them different titles, but that would be unfair, and would definitely be the subject for another post.

The film he remade was “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

In the 1934 original, produced in England, a family – mother, father, and little girl – on vacation in the snowy mountains of St. Moritz, Switzerland, get tipped off to a planned murder. The villains, discovering that the parents could notify the authorities about their plot, kidnap the little girl to keep them quiet. The father and mother learned that the baddies plan to assassinate a foreign diplomat in England during a concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall. The couple is faced with the choice of either saving the diplomat and possibly avoiding a war (remember, World War 1, which ended just 16 years earlier, was touched off by an assassination) or saving their daughter.

In the1956 remake, a family – mother, father, and little boy – on vacation in Marrakesh, Morocco, learn of a mysterious plot, which turns out to the be the same scenario as the earlier version.

Both films feature women with extraordinary talents. Edna Best, as the mother in the first film, is established as a crack shot with a rifle, which plays directly into the strange shootout with the villains at the end of that picture. Doris Day in the remake plays a singer who gave up her career when she married a doctor, played by James Stewart, and her voice plays an important part in the recovery of her boy.

Edna Best, was a London stage star who did not make many movies, and in this film, Hitchcock did not give her much to do. Doris Day, on the other hand, is given many scenes that establish her character, her talent and her rapport with the boy and with Stewart. In the opening scenes, Doris Day and James Stewart seem to be improvising, although that is not likely in one of Hitchcock’s films. They also have a powerful scene together when Stewart, who learns of the kidnapping first, has to break the bad news to his wife. (Anyone who thinks Doris Day was just a pretty comedienne with a good singing voice, should check out that scene and reconsider.)

The original version, with a running time of 75 minutes, seems rushed and does not give an audience time to get to know the family. When Hitchcock went to remake the story, 22 years later, he had a solid reputation and the backing of a major Hollywood studio and took his time, allowing the audience to care about the people, and more importantly, allowing the tension to build. The 1956 version runs 120 minutes. It was also shot in color and in Vista Vision and was made partially on location in Morocco and England.

But despite the short running time of the original, Hitchcock presents a typical Hitchcockian scene during the parents’ search for the girl. The scene is both painfully uncomfortable and hilarious at the same time. It involves a visit to a sinister dentist. In order to extract information (I know, I know), the dad first has to get into the chair.

Later, Hitchcock inserted a scene into the remake, at about the same point in the story, that was both tense and funny. Following up on a lead, Jimmy Stewart goes to a taxidermist’s studio and winds up in a fight with the employees among the stuffed exotic animals.

Peter Lorre, as the bad guy who kidnaps the child in the original film, was great. His performance is so odd and weirdly humorous that he steals every scene from Leslie Banks, who plays the father. In the remake, Hitchcock toned this down, making the kidnappers a bland, middle-aged couple.

For fans of Hitchcock, both versions are a must see. But the remake is far superior to the original.

In an interview with French New Wave director Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock said the first version was the work of a talented amateur and the second was the work of a professional.

(For more posts on movies and TV, check out Todd Mason’s blog.)

Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Movie-Star Movie: Allied

Looking to escape from the reality of the news and the cold weather this weekend? Then let me recommend the movie, “Allied.”

This is a big, old-fashioned, movie-star kind of movie about a Canadian agent, played by Brad Pitt, and a French resistance fighter, played by Marion Cotillard, who meet on a joint assignment in Casablanca during World War 2, fall in love, and carry out their mission. And there is a whole lot more to the story.

Director Robert Zemeckis, who made “Romancing the Stone,” “Back to the Future,” and “Cast Away,” gives this picture scope and drive and tension. He also showcases his stars the way Hollywood did during its Golden Age of the 1930s and 1940s. But the R-rated violence, sexuality, and language is 21st century.

Friday, December 9, 2016

FFB: Fargo by John Benteen

Call it coincidence, call it a sign, call it whatever you want, but there are times when something I have never heard of comes to my attention several times in a matter of days or weeks. At times like that, I get the distinct feeling I had better pay attention.

This has happened to me more than once. It is how, at the turn of the millennium, I came to read Richard Yates’ great novel, Revolutionary Road. That was years before Hollywood turned it into a movie – a movie I have not seen out of respect for the book.

This summer, it happened again when several different people wrote about a Western-action series of books by John Benteen featuring a character named Fargo.

And, as luck would have it, I found a used paperback of the first book in the Fargo series.

The story, published in 1969, opens with Fargo arriving in west Texas in 1916. He is described as tall and lean and wearing an army-style campaign hat over prematurely white hair. Others writing about Fargo say the description sounds a lot like the actor Lee Marvin in the 1966 movie, “The Professionals.”

Fargo is a hired gun with plenty of experience. In this tale, he is hired by the co-owner of a silver mine in northern Mexico who wants Fargo to accompany him down to the mine and to organize and protect a train of pack mules that will haul the silver out of a remote mountain valley and back to Texas. To do this, they will have to go through bandit territory and past the revolutionary army of Pancho Villa.

With his employer, Fargo has to get down to the mine in one piece, while fighting off gangs of violent bad guys. Once they get to the mine's location, they find their mission complicated by a renegade army blocking the mouth of the valley and waiting to strike and steal the silver.

Benteen (the pen name of author Ben Haas) keeps the many varied and at times hair-raising situations moving rapidly along. In a favorite section, Fargo and the mine owner avoid the renegades by entering the valley on a foot-wide trail high up on a rock wall. Not only do the men have to navigate this treacherous route, but also they must guide their horses along it.

Fargo is a fun, fast, short book and a welcome break from some of the heavier stuff I have been reading lately.

Among those who have written about Fargo is author and blogger Paul Bishop. James Reasoner wrote an introduction to a recent Kindle edition of Fargo.

(To read more book posts, please see Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Film Noir: The Crooked Way

Amnesia stories require an enormous suspension of disbelief, at least for me, and yet they can be such great yarns.

“The Crooked Way” from 1949 is one of those stories.

Eddie, played by John Payne, is a returning World War 2 veteran with a brain injury that erased his memory. He believes he was originally from Los Angeles and so returns to that city to see if there isn’t something he might recognize that will help him recover. Shortly after arriving, he is harassed by cops who claim he is a gangster, a woman who tells him she is his wife, and some thugs who work him over for cheating them.

If the amnesia premise was not hard enough to overcome, why Eddie would not turn around and get back on the train – any train – and get out of there, is an even bigger mystery than the one proposed in the film. But then, if he did that, there would be no movie. So Eddie sticks around and takes a lot more punishment at the hands of gangster, Vince, played by Sonny Tufts.

Tufts has the usual beef with his former colleague in crime, but even more interesting here is the very strong suggestion that Vince is a drug addict. Drug addiction in movies was strictly forbidden by the Hollywood production code of the time. The filmmakers get around this with a quick explanation that Vince is taking meds for his nerves. They even show the audience his prescription bottle. And somehow they got it past the censors.

Director Robert Florey provides a fast pace and a lot of violence in this 90-minute movie. And not just movie violence, but people getting the living snot kicked out of them. This was a rare thing for movies of the 1940s, a little less rare in noir films. Still, in this production, the violence is intense. Perhaps the code enforcers paid less attention to modest little pictures than they did to the big studio productions.

Cameraman John Alton – the man who really puts the noir in film noir – keeps everything dark, intriguing and menacing. Even ordinary moments, like three gangsters going up a staircase, is so interesting in its angle and use of light and shadow that it exudes tension. Alton also had a technique in close ups of placing a speck of light in the lead actor’s eyes which somehow created a subtle star burst that gave the players’ faces a special life. He used this technique on leading lady Ellen Drew. He was also great at lighting the villain. Vince always looks crazed and dangerous.

There are a lot of clichés in “The Crooked Way”, and John Payne is not too convincing as a tough guy – not like Robert Mitchum or Robert Ryan could be – but the movie is worth watching, especially for fans of the genre.

(For more posts on movies and television, check out Todd Mason's blog.)

Thursday, December 1, 2016

FFB: Jolie Blon’s Bounce by James Lee Burke

This post comes after a re-reading of James Lee Burke’s 2002 novel, Jolie Blon’s Bounce, or, more accurately I should say it is the second time around. This time I listened to the unabridged audio book of the novel.

Jolie Blon’s Bounce is the 12th of Burke’s 20 Dave Robicheaux novels. Dave Robicheaux is a former homicide detective who left the New Orleans Police Department during a low point in his life when he was drinking too much and ghosts of his past were haunting him – the murder of his wife, the war in Vietnam. Now, he is a detective with the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office, lives in the community and also owns a fishing-tackle and boat-rental business located on his home property.

Iberia Parish is an actual place about a two-and-a-half hour drive west of New Orleans. A parish, is what the state of Louisiana calls its counties. Burke describes many actual places in this and his other Robicheaux novels, and he is a master at conveying the sights, sounds, smells, and time of year in that part of the country.

In Jolie Blon’s Bounce, Dave Robicheaux has two murder mysteries to solve, which may or may not be related. He also goes up against a host of suspects including local toughs, New Orleans mob guys, and a man who may or may not be possessed by the devil, if not a demon himself. The man goes by the name, Legion, which is a reference to a story in the New Testament. Legion is a tall, wrinkled 74-year-old man who is physically powerful and has the power to scare the crap out of everyone – including Dave Robicheaux.

The only one not afraid of Legion, although he should be, is Dave’s friend and former homicide partner, Clete Purcel, now a private detective and bounty hunter. Throughout Burke’s series, Clete will step in to assist Dave, and more often than not he storms ahead and gets himself into a world of trouble. Here, I should note, there is a lot of violence, graphically described, in this book.

While parts of the story can make your hair stand on end, and parts could get your heart racing, the novel also has a good deal of humor, sometimes supplied by Clete Purcel, sometimes by Dave Robicheaux’s first-person observations of the people he must deal with day-to-day. Burke also shows tender moments with Dave and his second wife Bootsie and their adopted daughter Alafair.

Burke's storytelling skills weave so much of the culture, history, food, and dialects of the place into this, and all his Dave Robicheaux novels, that I almost feel I know more about that section of Louisiana than I do about my own town.

Jolie Blon’s Bounce is another great novel from James Lee Burke, someone who has been a favorite writer of mine for many years. The audio book, narrated by the late actor Mark Hammer, who recorded several of Burke’s earlier mysteries, is excellent.

(For more book posts, see Friday’s Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog.)