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Les hommes de l'ombre (2012)
Fantastic French political thriller series, breath-taking
This is a review of Seasons 1, 2, and 3. (No further season seems to be planned.) This series is France's answer to America's HOUSE OF CARDS (2013, still ongoing) and Denmark's BORGEN (2010-2013, see my review). Three countries now have produced magnificent series set in their nations' main political residences or parliaments showing the vicious back-stabbing and intrigues of leading politicians scheming for power, which confirms all that we ever feared about such people. (It is not impossible that HOUSE OF CARDS boosted the Trump vote, due to Robin Wright's icy and terrifying portrayal of a First Lady thought by some to resemble very closely a certain someone.) In this wonderful series, every moment of which is gripping, the main character is a spin doctor named Simon Kapita, played by the mesmerising Bruno Wolkowitch. He conveys a wide range of every kind of emotion and is a solid lead for the series. Season One is devoted to the presidential campaign of Anne Visage, played by Nathalie Baye. She disappears after Season One and from then on the series is dominated an overwhelmingly brilliant performance, perhaps the best of her career, by Carole Bouquet, as First Lady Elizabeth Marjorie. She plays a wild, unstable bipolar personality, and Bouquet therefore has great fun playing twelve personalities at once, all of them dangerous and unpredictable. It is a tour de force. When she was younger, she longed to play the wicked Countess Tarnowska, and here she got to go one better, and play a human kaleidoscope who could be a shrieking nightmare one moment and be 'sugar and spice and everything nice' the next moment. One never knows in the series whether she is going to smile enchantingly and make cooing noises or scowl, frown, and scream, and start throwing things. No expense seems to have been spared for this spectacular series, and access seems to have been granted at the Elysée and the Matignon, as well as other key political buildings. Certainly the exteriors are real, and the interiors are so convincing that it is difficult to believe that they are sets. There are some discontinuities in the series, in that one key character disappears after Season Two without trace, never to reappear, while there are a few cast changes between seasons of other key characters. Everyone is superb, and the direction is inspired. There is not a dull moment in the entire 18 episodes of this sensational political drama. The most wicked character in the series, worse even than the politicians, is the rival spin doctor to Kapita, Ludovic Desmeuze, played with intense cunning and malice by Grégory Fitoussi, which is the precise opposite of the 'nice guy' character whom he played I the series SPIRAL (ENGRENAGES, 2005-2014, see my review). It is a shock to see Fitoussi scheming and being evil, but then that is acting for you. One of the finest performances in the series is by the dour and proper Philippe Magnan as Philippe Deleuvre, a man capable of the cleverest and most devious plots, but always true to a strange inner morality. He adds a needed bass note to the series, like adding a row of bass fiddles exuding a prolonged doleful hum. (He played Mitterand in FAREWELL, 2009.) President Marjorie is magnificently played by Nicolas Marié, whose range of emotions is also very broad, and who carries a lead role with the ease of a true pro. Sophie-Charlotte Husson plays the most viciously scheming and ruthless politician of them all, and she is really scary. In the middle of having sex with Fitoussi she gasps not with ecstasy but with the question of does he sees her as President. That scene is a marvellous dark and wicked satire. Rachida Brakni is dutifully scheming while appearing to be loving, and she is capable of anything. In fact, most of the characters are capable of anything except for Kapita, who is a good guy surrounded by monsters. There is a huge amount of human tragedy and desperation in this series, and even though those who get crushed deserved their fate, the spectacle of their destruction is terrible. There were three directors for this series, one for each season. All were excellent. There were no less than ten writers, one of whom, Charlene de LépIne, was an executive producer of SPIRAL (ENGRENAGES). This series gathered together much of the best talent in France to produce a major series of relentless intensity and fascination, and certain to be of widespread international interest.
La tête d'un homme (1933)
A masterpiece from Duvivier, probably the best Maigret ever
This magnificent and brilliant film goes to prove, to any who may not have known, that Julien Duvivier was one of France's greatest film directors. The film is very expressionistic in its shots, shadows, and atmosphere. One can certainly never forget the last, unexpectedly shocking scene of the film. This was the third Simenon novel to be filmed, the first having been filmed the previous year, Jean Renoir's NIGHT AT THE CROSSROADS (1932, see my review), which was a disappointing failure. Here Duvivier triumphs where Renoir sank into the dust. Maigret is played in a droll and understated fashion by the plump and far from glamorous Harry Baur. He says little but accomplishes much, and by eccentric but inspired methods. But the film is dominated by the extraordinary performance of the Russian actor Valéry (Walerian) Inkijinoff as a psychologically complex villain who has only six months to live because of tuberculosis, and therefore has nothing to lose. The intensity, power, and menace of his performance is simply incredible. With him on screen, one could even describe the screen itself as haunted. Inkijinoff had made his mark with his film debut as the Mongol in Pudovkin's STORM OVER ASIA (1928), where his name was spelled properly as Inkizhinov. Here he plays Radek, a penniless Czech émigré living in a cheap hotel room in the centre of Montparnasse, where most of the action of the film is set. He intends to carry out a major crime, but sets up a witless labourer named Joseph Heurtin as a patsy to take the fall for murder. Alexandre Rignault's performance as Heurtin is outstanding. And Duvivier makes the most of this character, showing him walking around with his huge ungainly hands wide open with the elongated fingers dangling, sometimes seen in dramatic shadows which are clearly meant to be reminiscent of the shadows of the actor Max Schreck as the vampire in Murnau's famous NOSFERATU (1922). The closeups of Rignault's puzzled and fearful face, with his large uncomprehending eyes of a fleeing game animal, are immensely powerful. Duvivier has turned this Maigret story into something approaching a Gothic horror tale. We see many lively scenes in Montparnasse cafes, especially a Bar Eden, full of locals nursing their café crèmes, loose women picking up men, and men winking at each other either in complicity or as a sign that they have a good little crime up their sleeves. The compulsive gamblers roll dice on the zinc bar between their Pernods. There is a genuine Montparnasse flavour about this film, which is entirely lacking in Jacques Becker's unsatisfactory and artificial film about Modigliani, THE LOVERS OF MONTPARNASSE (1958). Another strange and compulsive performance in this film is by Gina Manès as Willy's fiancée Edna Reichenberg. Duvivier gives her many lingering closeups where we see her passionately bulging eyes, her fear, her greed, her brazen nature, and when she comes up against Radek, her own incomprehension, equal almost to Rignault's, of that arch-villain's extreme audacity which surpasses anything she has ever known. This film is a deep psychological film masquerading as a Maigret mystery. Duvivier is exploring the limits of human nature with the enthusiasm of a dedicated pathologist. The film really is well described by that popular slang phrase: 'something else'. In other words. 'you gotta see it'. Aspiring film geniuses, be ready to learn from a master.
Shifting Sands (1918)
Melodrama of a woman who is a victim of injustice
This melodrama directed by Albert Parker stars Gloria Swanson, aged 19, when her crystal eyes were at their most bewitching. The film covers several years, and she ages well. The story begins with her unable to pay the rent for the tenement apartment which she shares with her invalid sister, who cannot even get out of bed. Gloria is a struggling young painter who cannot sell her paintings, and she is down to her last penny. A horrible lecherous rent collector comes to the door and demands money but makes it clear that he will settle instead for payment 'in natura', as they say in Italian slang. He starts to pull her clothes off but she fights him off. His vanity is such that he cannot accept the rebuff and he vows vengeance. Upon leaving the building, he realizes that he does not have his wallet containing all the rent payments. In the struggle to rape Gloria, he had dropped it on the floor. Just as she notices it and picks it up, her door flies open and there is the rent collector with a policeman, and she is accused of theft and arrested. There are horrible scenes in the court where her pleas of innocence are disregarded, and she is sentenced to three months in prison. There is then a great discontinuity in the film because we then see Gloria getting out of prison, and she says her sister has died. It is as if a section of the film were chopped out. Gloria joins the Salvation Army and then she meets a good rich man and they get married and have a child. Another discontinuity in the film occurs when we jump forward very abruptly by five years. It is hard to resist the assumption that at least 20 minutes must have been cut from this film, which now runs 60 minutes. Now the horrible rent collector reappears and tries to blackmail Gloria, telling her she is now on shifting sands (hence the film's title) because if he tells her husband and her hostile mother-in-law that she went to jail for theft she will lose everything. But the story is more complicated than that, because the rent collector has become a German secret agent and what he wants is not money but secret government papers locked in the safe to which only Gloria and her husband know the combination. Will she or won't she? Does she or doesn't she? Will the evil rent collector finally meet with justice? Will Gloria's husband cast her out? I ain't sayin'.
The Whispering Chorus (1918)
An early psychological melodrama
This 82 minute silent film directed by Cecil B. DeMille was somewhat ahead of its time, being a serious attempt to film a drama of conscience in all its harrowing complexities. The 'whispering chorus' of the title consists of the rival impulses of the anti-hero, John Tremble, who is played by Raymond Hatton. A filmic device was used which may seem corny to us today, but at the time was doubtless very effective and perhaps innovative, namely the appearance on screen of diaphanous heads of good and bad people whispering to Tremble in his ear things like 'go ahead and do it' or 'an honourable person would not do such a thing'. Tremble is a man who is a bit too narcissistic for his own good, which is all too familiar to us today with the rise of smart phones from which people cannot extract their noses. Preoccupation with 'self' to the exclusion of all else has possibly become today's main social psychological problem. But in 1918 this ailment was still in its traditional form, known as selfishness. Tremble gives way to the bad voices of his whispering choruses and because he feels so sorry for himself and his lack of a new overcoat, steals some money from his employer. He has previously gambled away his last few dollars and staged a petulant scene at home in front of the miniature Christmas tree and his long-suffering wife and mother, tossing aside their small presents as being insignificant. Such spoilt-brat behaviour is bound to lead to doom, and as doom is always eagerly waiting for people to fall into it (as it has an insatiable maw) the anti-hero duly sinks into hopeless moral compromise. He disdains what he has got, namely a devoted wife and happy home, and wants what he cannot readily have except by theft. But then his theft is discovered and, to avoid going to jail, he fakes his own death and absconds to Cincinnati. (All of the action takes place in cities along the river, though the only locations we see are waterside ones.) He lives the life of a labourer and vagabond, becomes maimed and disfigured, and has a very rough time. Meanwhile his wife (played by Kathlyn Williams) has obtained a well paid job and after some years remarries a man who becomes the Governor of his state (played by Elliot Dexter). Tremble, having 'killed himself', then ironically ends up being caught many years later and charged with his own murder, as he is assumed to be the other man (whose body he had fished out of the river dead, and had not killed). All the complications one can imagine result from this state of affairs. The film is thus a very early 'film noir'. It is certainly not cheerful viewing. This film was preserved and restored by my old friend Dave Shepard, who died earlier this year. I would like to pay tribute to him, as a genuine hero of the history of the cinema. We knew each other when we were young. By a strange coincidence, when I was seventeen I independently met and befriended the stage actor John Griggs, one of the most passionate early collectors and preservers of old movies. It was only afterwards that I met Dave. It turned out that John Griggs had been Dave's mentor from the time he was a boy, as they lived near each other in New Jersey. I may be the only person left alive now who knew John Griggs, who was himself such a delightful and amusing man and enthusiast for early cinema. He had amassed over the decades a gigantic collection of 35mm prints of silent films, and this collection passed to Dave, giving him a huge head start in his career as a film preservationist. I well remember a short documentary film which Dave directed in his early twenties about children's games. He shot it mostly in a playground on 16mm in black and white and made a serious effort to understand children's mentality. It was very charming. He was always basically a sentimentalist. That film is not listed at IMDb, and I have forgotten its title. I am certain it was never distributed, and Dave was n t satisfied with it; indeed, I liked it better than he did. This DeMille film is not included in the partial list of restorations by Dave in his Wikipedia entry, but then he restored so many, there is probably no complete list of them in existence. Who knows, maybe the original print came from John Griggs. Dave and I used to discuss Eisenstein, Buster Keaton, and D. W. Griffith endlessly, and also foreign films. It was René Clément's FORBIDDEN GAMES (1952), which we both so greatly admired, which inspired Dave to want to make his own little documentary about children's games. All true cinema lovers owe a debt to Dave Shepard which they can only repay by watching as many as possible of the films which Dave loved so much and to which he dedicated his life to save and preserve for others to enjoy. Here's to you, Dave.
Fascinating and worthwhile sci fi film
This is a truly excellent science fiction film which does not have monsters, but instead tackles serious issues in a sensible manner. The film is set quite far in the future, when humans have already colonised a few other planets and starships are travelling across the Galaxy with humans spending a century or so in hibernation during the long interstellar voyages. (In this case, the starship passes the star Arcturus one third of the way on its journey.) The entire film is set in a particular starship owned by the Homestead Company on Earth, a horribly naff commercial enterprise which sends colonisers to its own commercially owned planets for settlement. There are 5000 colonists asleep on the ship, in addition to the crew who are also asleep, and the entire ship is on autopilot when it suffers a collision with a rocky body in space which damages it. Systems malfunctions begin to occur, and there is a single 'pod malfunction', whereby one of the colonists is awoken prematurely. He is played by Chris Pratt, who does a very good job of being an unambitious young engineer in search of a new life and adventure. He wanders around the gigantic starship and wonders why he is the only person awake, since the automatic announcement he received upon being awakened was that everyone was waking up now for the final months of their journey. The interior designs for the vast starship rooms are truly spectacular, as are the special effects of holograms of stewardesses, etc. Ghost of Stanley Kubrick, eat your heart out! If only 2001 could have been like this! I have never seen such magnificent art direction for a sci fi movie. The designer deserves an Oscar. A great many satirical touches are incorporated into the film, mocking the commercialism in a way which we can all appreciate and find amusing, and which will make many a travel agent blush (if travel agents have blood in their veins, that is). Pratt is horrified to discover that there has been a systems error and he is the only person awake on board the ship, which still has 90 years left to go of its voyage time. He spends a desultory year alone in the vast ship, becoming more and more depressed. There is no possibility of him putting himself back into hibernation, so he is irreversibly condemned to his lonely fate. As he wanders around looking at the faces of the other sleeping passengers, he is struck by the sight of a beautiful girl. He is tempted to wake her up for company, because he finds her irresistible, but he agonises over this for months, as it would mean condemning her to die on the ship, since neither he nor she could ever live long enough to survive to the end of the voyage. He has had one companion during all of this time, a robot bartender who looks human from the waist up and stands behind the bar pouring his whiskies and chatting to him amiably. This bartender robot is played absolutely brilliantly by Michael Sheen. His performance is in fact so amazing that it is the highlight of the film, surpassing even the spectacular sets in appeal. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that the man must be a genius. And one reason why he is so successful is that the script by Jon Spaihts is so superb that Sheen gets such wonderful lines that even a less talented actor could have scored with them. Finally, Pratt gives way to temptation and wakes the girl, who is played by Jennifer Lawrence. I must confess that I do not find Jennifer Lawrence at all beautiful, and I find that a problem in the story, since she is supposed to be so irresistible to Pratt. But then there is no accounting for taste. She does a good job of acting, so that she retains our interest for that reason. This unlikely and very ordinary couple then essentially are the story, until disasters begin to strike as the ship starts to deteriorate in a catastrophic manner. The attempts to save the ship and themselves preoccupy the young couple, and the events which ensue are extremely dramatic and harrowing. A crew member awakens because of another pod failure, but he only lives long enough to give Pratt his ID so that he can get into the command and control cabin. He then dies and the couple 'bury' him by ejecting him into space. At no point does this film become boring, despite the small cast. This is a thoroughly worthwhile sci fi film done on a grand scale in an intelligent fashion. It is extremely well done, and is a model of serious science fiction film-making.
Three Strangers (1946)
Eerie and good
This film noir directed by the highly talented Jean Negulesco manages to convey a great deal of menacing and sinister atmosphere in an indirect manner. Such subtlety is often lacking in such films. Much of this is due to the inspired casting. Anything with Sydney Greenstreet in it is always bound to be good, and here he is even more effective than usual. He 'acts up a storm', as the saying goes. His anxiety level is so high that he even seems to be able to make himself sweat, and one wonders if he really did that without the aid of the makeup people. Stranger things are possible. But the central piece of casting that makes this film work so well is Geraldine Fitzgerald as the female lead. She is absolutely brilliant at portraying a brazenly narcissistic and ruthless 'grabber', who simply has to have it all, whatever the cost to others. The scenes where Greenstreet begs her to help him are so powerful and tense that one's nerves are nearly shattered just watching it. The third lead is Peter Lorre, who is as effective as always. Those three make up the 'three strangers' of the title, who join in a pact together despite the fact that they have never before met. John Huston and Howard Koch were the two authors of the original screenplay. Koch had written the screenplay for CASABLANCA (1942) and two years later would do the screenplay for the brilliant Max Ophuls film LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948), which was adopted from a story by Stefan Zweig. He was therefore one of the best screenwriters around. Also excellent in this film is the actress Joan Lorring, then aged 20, who plays a girl who is in love with Peter Lorre, and will do anything for him. The strange story concerns a bronze statue of the Chinese goddess Guanyin (spelled in the film Kwan Yin), the Goddess of Mercy, which Geraldine Fitzgerald has in her apartment. (The small statue used in the film is very inferior, but never mind.) As I also have a Guanyin, this was of particular interest to me. Fitzgerald mistakenly says she is the Goddess of Fate, but then mercy was nothing anything that a character like Fitzgerald's would be interested in. She claims there is an old legend that says that if three strangers gather before the statue of Guanyin on the night of the Spring Festival (i.e., Chinese New Year) and make a joint wish, the wish will be granted. Fitzgerald goes out in the street and picks up the two men and brings them back to her apartment. They all wish for money, in the form of a sweepstakes ticket connected with horse racing, concerning which they all sign a binding legal agreement that they each own one third of it. The two men then go away, believing this to be a kind of a joke. But some time later the ticket wins. And then the complications begin. Insane greed, utter desperation, and competition between the three people all raise their ugly heads. The situation becomes very extreme. This is when Greenstreet sweats, because he has become compromised as a lawyer in the maladministration of some trust funds. But to tell more might ruin the viewer's suspense. This is an excellent film, one of the best of its kind.
Torn Curtain (1966)
A very good Hitchcock spy film
This film was not well received when it came out, and has often been criticised for being inferior. But some of those people who claimed that are the ones who praised Hitchcock's genuinely inferior films such as REAR WINDOW (1954, see my review) and his second version of THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956, see my review), both of which were terrible. In the latter film Hitchcock unfortunately cast Doris Day as the female lead, and she ended up deafening us all with repeatedly singing 'Que Sera Sera' in the middle of what was meant to be a suspense film. Here, Hitchcock cast Julie Andrews, but she pointedly does not start singing from mountain tops about the sound of music, but instead concentrates on the tense espionage tale in which she is involved in the story. So Hitchcock must have learned his lesson about singing actresses in suspense films, which is to make them shut up. Having thus brought that situation under control, it must be said that both Paul Newman and Julie Andrews do very well in this film, and deliver excellent performances. But for sheer acting genius, the accolades must go to the amazing Russian actress Lila Kedrova, who lends such magic, charm and pathos to her supporting role of Countess Kuchinska that the film is worth seeing solely for that. Another Russian actress, who was also a ballerina, is also superb in the film, namely Tamara Toumanova, who plays the prima ballerina on tour who almost brings death and disaster to the hero and heroine in the story by recognising them at the worst possible moment. Her acting career was sparse, and she only appeared in seven films, in one of which (TONIGHT WE SING, 1953) she played Anna Pavlova. It is the period of the Cold War, and in this film Newman plays an American physics professor who defects to East Germany from a physics conference in Copenhagen. He is a fake defector whose true purpose is to meet a German professor named Lindt (excellently played by the Austrian actor Ludwig Donath) and pick his brains, to help him solve a crucial problem. He then wishes to flee back to the West, aided by the American security services and in possession of the information he needs. But everything gets balled up because Julie Andrews, who is in love with Newman, unexpectedly follows him to Copenhagen and then to East Germany as well, and as people say these days on Facebook: 'It's complicated.' There are some marvellous grisly Hitchcock touches in this film, the most spectacular and gruesome being the scene where Newman has to kill a Stasi agent who is after him in the most outrageous manner by dragging his head into a stove. It is one of Hitchcock's most extreme examples of black humour. It's not that we see a lot of blood and gore, but that we are shown in what is intended to be a semi-comical fashion just how difficult it can be to kill someone who keeps refusing to behave himself properly and just die like he is supposed to. This is one of Hitchcock's successful efforts, and one should not listen to the scoffers who try to pretend it isn't.
Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940)
Excellent biopic of a famous medical scientist
This film, the original title of which was simply DR. EHRLICH'S MAGIC BULLET, is a biographical film about Professor Paul Ehrlich (1844-1915), a Nobel Prize Winner who revolutionised medical science in many ways. His scientific and personal adventures are vividly portrayed in this dramatic film. He is played by Edward G. Robinson, in one of his finest performances. Robinson's makeup as he ages over the decades is superb, and the real Ehrlich's beard is exactly copied. Eddie Robinson was perfect casting for such a part, as he was a genuine intellectual himself. His favourite way of passing the time on film sets between takes was to study grammars of numerous languages, ancient and modern. He was a master linguist and philologist, a renowned art collector, and one of the most sophisticated people in Hollywood. But until the age of ten he could not speak a word of English. It was then that he was put on a boat at Bucharest to sail to America, where he arrived as a penniless Romanian Jewish immigrant. The story of his life is even more amazing than that of Ehrlich's. I have met numerous members of the Robinson family, though alas I never knew Eddie himself. Robinson certainly had the brains to appreciate someone like Ehrlich, which does help in portraying someone on screen. Ehrlich found the first cure for syphilis, discovered how to stain the tubercle bacillus so that TB could be conquered, brought a diphtheria epidemic to a halt, discovered serums for snakebite, and much more. Those interested in Ehrlich can find plenty about him on the web. This film was directed by the German immigrant William Dieterle, who four years earlier had directed another scientific biopic, THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR (1936), the same year also directed a film about the life of Florence Nightingale entitled THE WHITE ANGEL (1936), and the following year directed THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (1937). So he was already well known for biopics and probably made more biographical feature films than any other director in cinema history. Immediately after finishing EHRLICH, he and Robinson teamed up to make THIS MAN REUTER aka A DISPATCH FROM REUTER'S (1940), about Julius Reuter, the founder of the Reuters News Agency, and two years later, Dieterle directed THE MAN ON AMERICA'S CONSCIENCE aka TENNESSEE JOHNSON (1942), about the life on Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who became President of the United States after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. One of the Dieterle's finest films was LOVE LETTERS (1945), with a screenplay by Ayn Rand. The famous Maria Ouspenskaya, who worked under the direction of Stanislavski himself in Moscow, appears in this film in a supporting role as Frau Speyer, and of course is superb. Donald Meek does a particularly good job of playing the sceptic Mittelmeyer, Ruth Gordon is excellent as Mrs. Ehrlich, and all the cast do well. It is a rousing story of how Ehrlich rose from being a general practitioner in a hospital to become a famous research scientist, overcoming countless obstacles and struggling to find funding for his revolutionary research. John Huston was one of the three writers of the excellent screenplay. This is something of a classic, and, frankly, films of this sort should be shown in the science classes of schools in order to inspire young people to become heroes of science in the service of humanity. Or is that a hopeless notion in today's Society of Narcissism?
The Pleasure Garden (1925)
Hitchcock's first film, a very good melodrama
At the age of 25, Alfred Hitchcock, who had been an assistant director to Michael Balcon, was given the chance to direct his first film, which was of course silent. It is very good and showed at once that he had talent. Assistant director on the film was a girl named Alma Reville, who was to become Hitchcock's wife and lifelong partner in all of his film projects. The film is based on a popular novel by 'Oliver Sandys', which was the pen name of a woman whose real name was Marguerite Jarvis, and who in this same year appeared as an actress under the name of Marguerite Evans in the comedy film STAGESTRUCK, with Gloria Swanson. The title of this film is the name of a music hall in London, where two girls are in the chorus together, and share a room in Brixton. The melodrama concerns the adventures of their lives and respective fates. The film was shot at Babelsburg Studios in Germany and had an international cast. The American actress Virginia Valli plays Patsy, the good girl of the two. And Jill, the girl who goes to the bad, is played by another American actress, Carmelita Geraghty. The German actor Karl Falkenberg plays the unpleasant and sinister Prince Ivan, who leads Jill astray. Falkenberg acted in 100 films between 1916 and 1936, after which he disappears from history. Probably he was Jewish, was banned from the screen by the Nazis, and then sent to a death camp. Possibly the best performance in the film is by British actor Miles Mander, who outdid Falkenberg by appearing in 107 films, between 1920 and 1947, including WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939). In this film he plays a cad who married Patsy and then betrays her with a mistress and goes to pieces with drink and decadence. He delivers a very finely judged performance, and does not overact. Carmelita Geraghty is very convincing in her downward spiral into immorality, selfishness, and selling herself for fame and fortune. The film is not particularly creaky with age, and is well worth seeing.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Not as good as the original
In the fifties, Alfred Hitchcock decided unwisely to remake this film in colour, with unlikely and ineffective lead actors, but it is nowhere near as good as his original film THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934, see my review). The female lead is, of all people, Doris Day. And the male lead is drawling, yokelish James Stewart. Perhaps the bosses at Paramount exerted a nefarious influence, or perhaps Hitchcock went temporarily mad, in deciding upon this casting. Although the film does contain numerous excellent 'Hitchcock moments' and 'Hitchcock touches', the film itself is a failure because of all the other things wrong with it, not least suddenly turning into a musical from time to time. Having Doris Day repeatedly performing her famous song 'Que Sera Sera' in the film with her voice loud enough to shatter a glass, in the mist of a supposed suspense film, is so nonsensical and ludicrous that one despairs. Perhaps it had been demanded by her in her contract. The story this time does not start, as in the earlier film, in St. Moritz in Switzerland, but instead in Morocco. Stewart and Day, together with their young son, are on a tourist bus to Marrakesh. They are intentionally portrayed as being 'as American as apple pie', innocents abroad in fact (as Mark Twain would say). The little boy, though mercifully not chewing bubblegum, looks outside and says: 'Oh look, a camel.' But as we later learn that they have already been in Casablanca, they would have seen plenty before this one. These innocents abroad are befriended on the bus by a Frenchman who, it turns out, speaks fluent Arabic and is familiar with the area. Later in the simulated Marrakesh marketplace, the innocents abroad are puzzled by a police chase. A man in Arab clothes is running but has been stabbed in the back, and he staggers towards Doris Day and collapses. James Stewart holds him and his fingers rub against the man's face and brown makeup comes off on his fingers, leaving a streaked face, showing that the man was only disguised as an Arab and is in fact the Frenchman from the bus. (This is one of Hitchcock's famous 'images', out of which he built his films. He would think of a streaked face first and then construct a story around it. His instinct was always to go for images which were visually shocking and find explanations for them later.) The man whispers something in Stewart's ear and dies. Stewart jots it down in a notebook. (There is no message hidden in a shaving brush this time, as was the case in the 1934 film.) Day and Stewart had earlier been befriended at their hotel by a British couple named the Draytons, played by Bernard Miles and Brenda de Banzie. They have been accepted by Day and Stewart as a sweet and friendly couple, so they entrust Mrs. Drayton to take their son back to the hotel while they go off to make a statement to the police. But the Draytons are not what they seem. They are in fact sinister baddies masquerading as a sweet British couple. They kidnap the boy and disappear, fleeing the country for London. (This is the fifties, before all the identity checks.) The finest performance in the film is by Brenda de Banzie as Lucy Drayton. She makes a tremendously effective villainess. This leaves Stewart only with the secret message of the dying man to guide him, suggesting he 'see Ambrose Chappell' in London. So he and his wife rush off to London and look in the phone book where there is an Ambrose Chappell listed at Burdett Street in Camden Town, who turns out to be a taxidermist, providing some comic scenes with stuffed animals, but he is a false lead. They then discover that there is an Ambrose Chapel which is a religious chapel, not a person, and so they investigate that. It turns out to be where the 'Draytons' are holed up with the kidnapped son, with Mr. Drayton acting as a preacher for a strange religious sect, and he and his wife live in the adjoining house. One thing leads to another, as Hitchcock might say. The Royal Albert Hall as a location for a plan to assassinate a foreign prime minister remains the same as the plot of the earlier film version. The British filming was actually done on location, unlike the Moroccan filming. Hitchcock always liked any opportunity to film his beloved London. The man who died in Marrakesh asked Stewart to try and prevent the assassination. But how is he to do this? It is about to happen at any moment, and he is more concerned with saving his son from the kidnappers. Will the son be saved? Will the assassination be prevented? If only the suspense of this film had been undiluted, as in the original. But no, we have Doris Day singing 'Que Sera Sera' again, accompanying herself on the piano, and although this is ingeniously woven into the fabric of the story which ensues, really somebody has got this all wrong! The one thing which must be said in amelioration is that Doris Day actually does some effective acting in her role, and if only she had left it at that and not tried singing as if she were in a musical, the film would have been less of a nonsense than it is. One must decide whether one is either making a suspense film or one is not, and this time no one could make up his or her mind. So what a sad contrast this Hitchcock effort is with the earlier superb version! The final scene of the film is however a master's ironical touch.