Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Strangers on a Carousel: Fun and Games with Hitchcock

It’s unlikely that Alfred Hitchcock will be remembered as a comedy writer. His subject matter (which usually focuses on extreme jeopardy) isn’t exactly light-hearted. But as Edward White’s new The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock makes clear, Hitchcock was deft at using comedy both to make social points and to heighten our sense of impending disaster by forcing us to laugh uneasily at the grotesque within our world. There’s that inevitable banana peel in his best work: the leading character is always about to slip on it, and the results can be hideous or hilarious. Gaiety or gore?: that is the question.

 These are the thoughts that run through my mind about one of the master’s best films: 1951’s Strangers on a Train. As usual, Hitchcock based it on the prose work of a talented suspense writer. In this case, the writer was Patricia Highsmith, who 50 years later would be hailed by movie audiences for having created the slippery character of Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley and its sequels. (She also wrote the source material for the lesbian drama, Carol. )  Hitchcock and his screenwriters (who included Raymond Chandler) stayed loyal to Highsmith’s basic premise, that—in the course of an accidental meeting—two men discuss a “criss-cross” exchange of murders. Yet the filmmakers gave some significant twists to Highsmith’s original story. Notably, the architect Guy Haines is turned by Hitchcock and company into a noted tennis player, one who tries to laugh off, and then to avoid, the implications of the murderous “bargain” that is insisted upon by the story’s charming psychopath, Bruno Anthony.

  None of this may sound funny, but the finished film is laced with Hitchcockian wit. It begins right at the beginning, when the main characters are introduced as two pairs of men’s dress shoes: one sober black and one flashily two-toned, both heading across a train platform. Ultimately, when one pair “accidentally” kicks the other under the table in a dining car, we are introduced to the shoes’ owners, and drama takes over. Much of the film’s macabre comedy involves Bruno (a spectacularly creepy Robert Walker), who has murder on his mind and won’t take no for an answer. (Part of the joke was that Walker was known in his day for playing heroes and good guys.) Bruno, a wealthy idler itching to bump off his own father, lives in a mansion where he sports garish kimonos and enjoys the loyal support of his hilariously dotty mother (a fluttery Marion Lorne). As Bruno skulks through the film, intimidating the weak but well-intentioned Guy (Farley Granger, who helped commit a murder in Rope), fans of the film will remember him particularly as a spectator in a tennis match scene. While all the rest of the tennis fans watch from the bleachers, their heads swiveling as the ball moves back and forth across the net, Bruno sits immobile in their midst, fixedly staring at Guy. Nervous giggles, anyone?

 There’s also the fact that the script is full of supporting characters who find the idea of murder amusing. These include a dowager at a party who’s tickled by the whole subject of strangulation and also the filmmaker’s own daughter, the late Patricia Hitchcock, who as the sister of Guy’s beloved enjoys airing her own colorful theories about crime and punishment. Her role is not gratuitous: her thick glasses link her visually to Bruno’s victim, slain amid the fun and games of an amusement park. No surprise that the film ends on a carousel: hilarity and mayhem come together in one jauntily revolving package.



Friday, August 27, 2021

The Play’s the Thing: Tom Stoppard Loses It At the Movies

“Inside any stage play there is cinema wildly signalling to be let out.” This Tom Stoppard quote, from the impressive (and weighty) new biography by Hermione Lee, hints at the famous playwright’s complex attitude toward the movies. From his youth onward, Stoppard was a fan of movies, starting with Disney’s Pinocchio, which he saw at the ripe old age of four. As an adult he loved everything. from Marx Brothers laff-fests to European art films to such popular Hollywood fare as The Graduate. (He and its director, Mike Nichols, turned out to have much in common – including early lives disrupted by Nazis – and later became close friends.)

 But Lee’s biography makes crystal-clear the gulf between writing for the stage and writing for movies. As the successful playwright of such works as The Real Thing and Arcadia, Stoppard revels in prestige and power. It’s not simply a matter of custom: the legalities of the theatre world stipulate that the text of a play cannot be changed for the purposes of stage production without the author’s consent. Some playwrights are probably shy about exerting their will, but Stoppard is not among them. Although unfailingly polite and collaborative, he insists that any changes to the text of a play be made by him. He also demands consultation on production matters, which means that he’s present not only at rehearsals but also at auditions and meetings of the technical staff. The performance of a Tom Stoppard play is, first and foremost, a Tom Stoppard production.

 At the movies, though, it’s the director, not the writer, who is king. (Or, I guess, queen, though female directors continue to be rare indeed.) A major director can hire and fire screenwriters at will, and can even have two writers toiling on the same project without being aware of one another’s existence. Other members of the production team often chime in with their own ideas, and stars have been known to contribute (and sometimes insist on) their own rewrites. This should not be a world in which Stoppard would want to operate, except for the fact that movie gigs are so very lucrative, and Stoppard’s lifestyle is so very lavish.

 Stoppard has been credited on several major movies, including the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love. He has also directed an ambitious though modestly budgeted 1990 screen version of his own earliest hit, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, reasoning that only he would have the audacity to ruthlessly re-focus his own much-admired play. He quickly discovered that he was fundamentally NOT a filmmaker: his instinct was always to focus on dialogue, at the expense of camera movement. Afterwards he acknowledged that a filmmaker, though not a playwright, can change the frame. “In the theatre you’ve got this medium shot, fairly wide angle, for two and a half hours. And that’s it folks.”

 Aside from his several screenplay credits, Stoppard has become invaluable to such major directors as Steven Spielberg, because they trust him for smart, honest assessments of their pending projects. For Spielberg, he tried to tamp down the soppy elements that ended the romantic 1989 film, Always, but he also was insistent that Steven Zaillian’s final draft of Schindler’s List not be ”improved” upon. Sometimes Stoppard beefed up dialogue scenes, without screen credit but for serious sums of money. See, for instance, his sparkling work on the key father/son scene between Sean Connery and Harrison Ford in Spielberg’s third Indiana Jones film, which ends with Connery’s Henry Jones telling his long-neglected son that “you left just when you were becoming interesting.”



Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Roping Us In: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope”

The grizzly case of Leopold and Loeb has fascinated filmmakers for generations. It was back in 1924 that two wealthy young men from Chicago, convinced of their own intellectual superiority, kidnapped and murdered a 14-year-old boy as an experiment in committing “the perfect crime.” Films inspired by this gruesome episode include 1959’s Compulsion (which focuses on Clarence Darrow’s ringing indictment of the death penalty while defending the two killers), as well as 1992’s Swoon and 2002’s Murder by Numbers. But Alfred Hitchcock—always fascinated by murder and the motives behind it—in 1948 beat everyone else to the screen when he adapted (along with actor/writer Hume Cronyn) a 1929 British play called Rope. This was the period when the always-inventive Hitchcock was trying out new filmmaking techniques. Four years earlier he had challenged his own directorial skills by crafting a survival drama set entirely aboard a small lifeboat in the thick of World War II. (Yes, it was called Lifeboat.) In Rope, he introduced color cinematography, while also shooting and editing in such a way that the film seems to exist in a single long take.

 This ambitious attempt to simulate “real time” fascinates film students, though other viewers understandably tend to find it contributes to the movie’s quasi-theatrical stiffness. (The camera occasionally lingers on somebody’s back so that the shooting angle can be changed without our seeming to notice.) From what I’ve read, the actors were not enthralled with all of this experimentation. The set—a posh Manhattan penthouse—was a complicated one, full of walls that could be moved to accommodate lights and camera as well as furniture that had to be hustled out of the way as filming proceeded. I think it was the film’s star, James Stewart, who griped that the only rehearsing that took place involved the constant fully-choreographed rearrangement of chairs, tables, and an essential wooden chest as the drama unfolded.

 Aside from its technical challenges, what is Rope actually about? What unfolds is a Leopold and Loeb-like story in which two suave young men strangle a former classmate for kicks, then stuff his body into the chest on which they’ll serve a festive repast while hosting his parents, his sweetheart, and a prep school mentor played by Stewart. We’re asked to believe that Stewart’s character, Rupert Cadell, is the one who first introduced them to the Nietzschean idea that a man of superior intellect can get away with just about anything. To their dismay, though, he refuses to applaud their murderous (not to say sadistic) behavior, and emphatically turns against them.

 As in most variants of the Leopold and Loeb story, this one contains hints that the two murderers (well played by John Dall and Farley Granger) are tacitly dealing with their own homosexuality. Playwright Arthur Laurents, who wrote the Rope screenplay when he was barely thirty, was himself a gay man who strongly felt there was a homoerotic element at the center of this story. Talking about Rope decades later, he regretted that Stewart’s character was not also subtly portrayed as gay. (The role had earlier been turned down by both Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift.) Stewart seems uncomfortable as Cadell, and early audiences didn’t respond well to him as a philosophical Nietzsche enthusiast.

 One more gripe from Laurents: he had never intended for the murder to be shown in the opening scene. As the film now stands, we know all about the rope, the chest, and the body inside it. Laurens would have preferred for us to wonder—and experience the slowly dawning recognition of the chest’s grim secret.