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Thursday 25 February 2010

The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)

Director: Sam Newfield
Stars: Jed Buell's Midgets

I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

You knew this was going to turn up sooner or later, right? There's just no way I could resist adding to the ranks of Cinematic Hell something that the title card suggests is supposed to be 'a rollickin', rootin', tootin', shootin' drama of the great outdoors,' but patently isn't, at least not how you expect. It was produced in 1938 by Jed Buell who owned Jed Buell's Midgets (given that this was the golden age of the studio system, 'owned' probably had many meanings), who constitute the entire cast. Yes, folks, this is a musical western with an all midget cast, many of whom you'll recognise because they went on to play Munchkins the following year in The Wizard of Oz.

Originally produced as an independent feature, The Terror of Tiny Town was bought by Columbia and distributed with big studio money. The very concept is dubious, about as politically incorrect as is humanly possible, but it's the involvement of Columbia that gave it far more of a life than it should ever have had. It's their fault, folks. The catch is that nobody seems to know whether it's even supposed to be serious or not. The introduction, provided by the only full sized man in the picture, perhaps Jed Buell himself, appearing on stage in front of an invisible audience (ie us), suggests that it's 'a novelty picture' that we shouldn't take too seriously. However he's then interrupted by The Hero and The Villain of the picture, who both point out how serious it really is.

Buck Lawson, the Hero, says he going to become the biggest star in Hollywood, but Bat Haines, the Villain, doesn't even believe he's the biggest star of the film. When the audience hiss at him, he spits out in reply, 'I'm the toughest hombre that ever lived and I ain't afraid o' the biggest one o' you. I'm the Terror of Tiny Town, and that's the star part.' We haven't even got to the credits yet but this is already stunningly painful in a pantomime way. Picture your kid's school production but without any kids in it. Yeah, that's what it looks like we're in for and for a while it seems like that's precisely what we get.

Once it actually begins, we're thrown straight into a musical number at B Armstrong's, the local blacksmith's shop, where the voices of all those Munchkins, I mean the citizens of Tiny Town, chirp away behind the overdubbed voice of the singing star who patently isn't Billy Curtis, who plays Lawson. But then we get serious, or at least as serious as any of the singing cowboy movies John Wayne played in for Monogram back in the thirties, and it becomes instantly forgettable, inherently devoid of suspense. Something's wrong at North Fork Range and Buck Lawson discovers that it's cattle rustlers. I wonder who could be behind it all! Yeah, given that the villain has already introduced himself to us as The Villain, it doesn't exactly take much to work out that it's really Bat Haines. Whodathunkit.

He's trying to start a war between Pop Lawson on one side and Tex Preston on the other by leaving branding irons and malicious lies in convenient places. The pair fought each other to a standstill fifteen years earlier and haven't forgotten about it yet, so Haines has a pretty easy job on his hands. Frankly we really don't care and so spend our time watching midgets ride around on Shetland ponies and walk under saloon doors, while reaching up to make them swing, of course. While Tiny Town is populated only by tiny people, it wasn't built that way. It must have been a ghost town that was discovered by midgets who promptly moved in and couldn't be bothered to make furniture their own size. Maybe they couldn't find a digest version of the Sears catalogue, or something.

The sight gags are fun, at least for a while, but none of them are remotely as funny as Charles Becker, who plays Otto, Tex Preston's cook. He was the Mayor of Munchkinland a year later, which suggests that the studio folks recognised his talent too and he's an undeniable gem here, even when he's not walking inside full sized kitchen furniture. He wears a full sized chef hat, cunningly conceals an axe behind his back and for a long sequence stumbles after a goose called Fritz that backs away from his calls of 'Ducky! Ducky! I won't hurt you.' Fritz the goose should have ended up in a Buster Keaton movie, but of course he was about fifteen years too late, so got stuck with The Terror of Tiny Town instead. At least he never gets caught.

So much of this film is utterly ill advised. You really didn't need me to point that out, right? Apparently the idea sprung out of a comment Jed Buell overheard decrying the current state of the movie industry and remarking that 'if this economy doesn't turn around, we'll have to start making pictures with midgets.' Now unless he heard that a decade before he got round to making the film, the only thing more ludicrous than that comment is the fact that he acted on what he heard. This was released in 1938, right in the middle of the Golden Age of Hollywood, which was frickin' golden for a reason. People lived in movie theaters in 1938 and they watched whatever was showing, even this. But hey, if that's what it takes to spark truly unique gems of insanity, we really shouldn't complain.

But there's something to remember. These actors were only in the movie business because of their size not their talent, which is rather variable, there not being a whole heck of a lot of serious parts for midgets in the late thirties. Some, like Billy Platt, who plays the curmudgeonly Tex Preston, are pretty good actors as well as highly recognisable faces, making them great candidates for a real sizeable role, pun not intended. Others, like Billy Curtis, who plays the hero Buck Lawson, are capable too but a little less memorable, making them fairly comparable to a number of cowboy stars of the era, including the early John Wayne who was certainly a pretty poor actor when he started out. Most of the cast don't have much beyond their diminutive stature to go on though, which may be fine for odd character parts in regular movies but isn't for the lead roles in a film that doesn't have anything else to its name but its one novelty gimmick.

And so to the question we just can't ignore. How are we supposed to react to these folks? Are we supposed to play along and smile at the sight gags, which are plentiful. There's only so far you can go with gags like a couple of midget musicians teaming up to play a double bass or the customer in the barber shop who fills in the empty slot in the barbershop quartet, the whole joke being is that it obviously isn't his voice. Are we supposed to laugh uproariously at the whole freak show aspect of it? Hey look, a midget! Hey look, another one! That's pathetic and more than a little demeaning and for all that novelty talk during the introduction, this whole thing is played out pretty seriously with at least some actors who can act and at least some singers who can sing. Many of Jed Buell's Midgets also belonged to Singer's Midgets, who were a vaudeville outfit, and it's obvious which members of this cast sing their own material.

So should we take it seriously? That's actually not quite as far fetched as it might initially seem, especially as its attempt at a musical western ends up being rather close to that old chestnut, Romeo and Juliet, with Buck Lawson as Romeo and Nancy Preston as Juliet. She's Tex Preston's niece, who's coming in by stage to live with him as he's the only family she has left, but when Bat Haines shoots the driver and the Wells Fargo man it falls to Buck to save the day and rein in the horses. They fall in love on the spot and it's their love that finally puts paid to Haines's plans to start a range war and brings peace, love and happiness to Tiny Town. What happened to good old double suicides? Maybe that's reserved for couples watching this thing.

Far better are the scenes with Austro-Hungarian Nita Krebs, who is excellent as the dance hall girl who carries her name, the sort of role you'd expect Marlene Dietrich to play in a regular film. Yeah, 'dance hall girl' is obviously a euphemism, as is 'vampire', used in its old sense that was soon condensed to 'vamp'. She's obviously the town whore who has plenty of dirt on Haines and is just waiting for him to reject her one time too many in favour of wholesome Nancy Preston and she'll do something drastic. Krebs doesn't have anywhere near enough to do, especially as it was her scenes where I forgot I was watching an all midget western and got surprised all over again when a midget walked into the scene.

The catch to the serious aspect is that it's doomed to failure. Little Billy Rhodes plays Bat Haines like the epitome of a serial villain, so much so that we feel the need to hiss out loud at him and go save Penelope Pitstop from the railroad tracks. We can't remotely take him seriously, whether he's ordering the sheriff around or crying, 'From now on I'm playing a lone hand!' as he tries to manoeuvre himself out of a saloon window with the aid of a conveniently placed chair. It isn't the fact that this is an all midget western that makes it one of the worst films ever made, it's the fact that the filmmakers couldn't make up their mind what to do with it.

Maybe if the follow up had been made, an all midget version of the Paul Bunyan story with only the title character played by a normal sized actor, they'd have worked out an actual direction. Sadly we'll never know. Now, how about an all midget version of Rambo? Star Wars? Enter the Dragon? Anyone? Pretty please! Imagine if the only things big about Avatar were its budget and the price of 3D IMAX tickets. Oh never mind, they were. Nonetheless, this could be the new trend. Forget about Lego versions of classic movies, just remake them with midgets. At least we wouldn't have to watch Adam Sandler any more. How about an all midget version of The Godfather? Casablanca? I wouldn't dare suggest Big Trouble in Little China but c'mon! Little Trouble in Big China would be the most successful cult film ever just waiting to be made. And you read it here first, folks.

It Happened One Night (1934)

Director: Frank Capra
Stars: Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

I learned plenty here, from a film that I hadn't even heard of before starting out on my journey through the IMDb Top 250. In fact it was only after checking up on director Frank Capra, a name I'd heard of but didn't know much about, after watching Arsenic and Old Lace in 2004, that I discovered that It Happened One Night was something of a legend as far as the Academy Awards go. It was the first film to sweep all four of the most important Oscars: for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress. This being 1934, the achievement was even more stunning because the supporting categories didn't come into play for another two years, meaning that It Happened One Night pretty much won everything there was to win. Oh yeah, it won for Best Adapted Screenplay too.

Knowing the sheer bias that the Academy holds against certain genres, this surprised me no end. I thought that films that swept the Oscars tended to be serious dramas with powerful impacts, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Silence of the Lambs, which also won the top four awards, along with a fifth for Best Adapted Screenplay too. It Happened One Night is far from them, being a romantic comedy, a prototype for the screwball comedies that would run riot over the next decade, with the sort of happy ending that Frank Capra is renowned for. Yet it still holds a solid claim to those five little statuettes because, unlike the musicals and biopics that won in the years around it, it captured the moment better than most films have ever done.

Capra started out in the industry working for the studios of Mack Sennett, probably the first real movie producer there was and certainly the originator of slapstick in Hollywood. I'm sure that gave him a solid inside scoop on how comedy worked on film. He progressed to three Oscars for direction, four films in this list and universal respect for his work, not least through constant reruns of It's a Wonderful Life on TV at Christmas and an episode of The Simpsons being based around Homer rewriting Mr Smith Goes to Washington as an action vehicle for Mel Gibson. It's arguable whether winning three Oscars or being parodied on The Simpsons is the bigger claim to immortality but Frank Capra is one of the few to fortunately have both to his name.

The storyline of It Happened One Night is pretty basic: girl meets boy, girl hates boy and boy hates girl but before long boy and girl are very much in love. Then again, this is a romantic comedy after all. What do you expect? What you probably don't expect is for boy and girl to be thoroughly well defined characters, the sort you just don't see any more. Peter Warren and Ellie Andrews are far from being generic templates, partly through the clever writing of Robert Riskin, who wrote no less than thirteen of Frank Capra's movies including Mr Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It with You and Meet John Doe, and partly through the wonderful character building of the actors, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert.

We meet Colbert first, as a spoiled heiress called Ellen Andrews. Ellie has just got married to an aviator called King Westley without her father's permission, so he's had her dragged back to his yacht in Miami while he uses his influence to have the marriage annulled. It doesn't go well, however right he may be that she married Westley just because he didn't want her too. After she throws a fit and he slaps her, she dives into the harbour and swims to shore, to find her way to her new husband a thousand miles away in New York. She may be petulant and stubborn but she's far from stupid and she successfully eludes both her father's crew and the horde of private detectives he promptly sets on her trail.

It's on the night bus to New York that she meets Gable, in the form of Peter Warren, because they end up sharing the last seat on the bus. Warren is a newspaper reporter, hardly a rare role for Gable, but he's been fired, apparently not for the first time, and we first meet him drunkenly trying to cajole his editor into hiring him back again over a collect call. He's hardly the picture of decency when he tells her to scram out of his seat and doesn't even offer to put her bag on the rack for her, but when it's stolen at the first stop he tries to chase down the thief. He may be rude and insufferable but he's no fool either. It's when she refuses to report the theft or let him tell the driver that his reporter's blood realises that he's stumbled onto a story, one that is soon backed up by the front pages in Jacksonville.

There's so much to love here that the film becomes contagious. The moonfaced Colbert exudes complexity, constantly mixing an air of innocence and decency with the arrogance of a spoiled brat and the inherent assumptions that come with privilege. That's how she can successfully throw out a line beginning 'Now look here, young man!' to Gable, who was two years older than she was. It's also how Ellie can instinctively tell the driver to wait for her if she's a little late back to the bus from their thirty minute stop for breakfast. Needless to say he doesn't, but as Warren has worked out who she is by this point he's there waiting for her with the ticket she left on her seat. He wants the exclusive on her 'mad flight to happiness' and a twelve hour wait till the next bus isn't much of an inconvenience in the circumstances.

Gable was at his peak, continuing to define the new sort of romantic Hollywood hero that began in 1931 with the shocking scene in A Free Soul when, as a mere supporting actor, he slapped leading lady Norma Shearer. Every female viewer was horrified, of course, but rather aroused nonetheless and Hollywood scriptwriters paid close attention. So three years on, Gable was very much the leading man playing Peter Warren in ways that the old school types could never have done. That era was gone and many of the actors that Gable supported in his dozen 1931 movies were supporting him by this point or just fading away. He was very definitively the future and he was still shaping it when he made this film.

Newshound Peter Warren begins the film drunkenly telling his boss what the score is, unphased even after being fired because he's supremely confident in his talents. He promptly stands up to Ward Bond on the bus, chases after a thief and tells the elegant Ellie Andrews in no uncertain terms to shut up. He takes over her affairs without a single thought, counting her money and stopping her wasting it on a box of chocolates. He pretends to be her husband to save her from Roscoe Karns on the bus and to get them beds for the night when the bus is held up by a washed out bridge. He'll do whatever it takes and he can take anything that's thrown at him. What's more, he knows it. 'Your ego is absolutely colossal,' Ellie tells him. 'Yeah, not bad,' he replies. 'How's yours?'

All this makes utter sense when you know how thirties Hollywood films work, but it's this sort of background that I didn't have when I first watched It Happened One Night in 2004 and the recognition of that fact both epitomised what I was really trying to achieve by working through the IMDb Top 250 and defined much of my viewing for the next few years. I'd always felt that my big gaps were from the fifties to the seventies because I'd seen so much from before and so much from after but so little from in between. However with this film I realised that almost all the many films from the thirties that I knew seemed to be genre movies: the Universal horrors, the swashbucklers and odd little favourites like The Bat Whispers, Mad Love and Freaks. I'd caught up on a few more mainstream movies already through this project but it became obvious to me that I had a long way to go indeed to understand Hollywood's first decade of talkies.

I realised this all the more when looking up the stars of the film. At the time I hadn't even heard of Colbert and I could only name one other film that Gable appeared in, one that I'd watched a little earlier in this very project. What I found, of course, was that both were massive stars in the thirties: Colbert was one of the most popular leading ladies of the era and Gable was literally crowned as 'The King of Hollywood' in 1938, a year before Gone with the Wind. When Warren's fellow drunks pronounce 'Make way for the King' as they walk him to the night bus in Miami, they were actually being rather prophetic. So here were two massively important names and I knew nothing about them, had seen only one film starring either of them and had no reference points at all to their entire careers in cinema.

As any regular visitor to Apocalypse Later knows, I've promptly done my level best to catch up. Since 2004 I've paid more attention to the thirties than any other decade, racking up an average of 67 films from each year and going as high as 94 from 1932. I've consumed the filmographies of the great names of the era, to the degree that I've now seen 35 of Clark Gable's movies from the thirties alone, along with 32 of James Cagney's, 28 of Humphrey Bogart's and 22 of William Powell's. I'm up to 34 with Myrna Loy, 23 with Bette Davis and 20 with Jean Harlow. Of the various Top 100 lists I've dipped into, the thirties list is the one I'm closest to completing, having seen 94 of the Home Theater Forum's 100 Great Films of the 1930's with half the remainder ready to go.

This decade really epitomises the journey I've been making into the history of film and it's been a thoroughly enjoyable and eye opening ride. It really provides a solid grounding to an understanding of Hollywood, beginning with the hesitant transition to sound, progressing through the eye opening freedoms of the precode era to their inevitable lockdown under the forced morality of the Production Code in 1934, and onward to Hollywood's Greatest Year in 1939. Of all the decades of American film it's the most vibrant, honest and fascinating. It was the golden age of the star system but was also packed with great character actors and the most recognisable and prolific extras in American film history. It had everything and even without the expressionistic imagery of film noir to add effect, the forties are stuck in its shadow.

So I did my homework, reading up on famous Colbert movies like Imitation of Life, Drums Along the Mohawk and The Palm Beach Story, along with Gable classics like Manhattan Melodrama, Red Dust and San Francisco, then tracking them down and finding out first hand why they were so important. In doing so I discovered that often it wasn't the films that were important, it was the people in them and behind them. The actors in those days didn't have any control over the films they appeared in, being for all intents and purposes merely property of the studios, and so even if they were great, as I soon discovered Gable was, their films often weren't. Nevertheless, for me to have been so blissfully unaware of two of the greatest stars of the era underlined a massive gap indeed. At least It Happened One Night turned out to be one of the best places to start remedying that.

It was a sleeper hit. From initially indifferent reviews it grew by word of mouth until its sweep of the Oscars didn't seem surprising to anyone. Most of this success is due to the way in which Gable and Colbert play off each other. Their interaction is by turns hilarious, touching and surprising and it never lets us lose interest. I'm not a romance fan by any stretch of the imagination but I loved the way these two went at it when they didn't like each other and nearly as much when they did. What's more important still I cared what happened to both characters. I couldn't care less what happened to Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind but I felt for him here, and Claudette Colbert manages the difficult task of developing believably from a spoiled brat to a decent human being that Scarlett O'Hara was never allowed to try.

That's what makes the film so special. There may be little of real substance here but that little is something that we can and do care about. I'd take a single It Happened One Night over a hundred Gone with the Winds any day, and I'm happy that it looks down at its more famous counterpart from a higher position on this list. What's most strange is that this was a real change of role for Gable, who previously had been continually typecast in the sort of domineering and virile parts that he had pioneered in A Free Soul. His regular studio MGM farmed him out to Columbia for this film as a disciplinary action because he had refused to play yet another of what he called his 'gigolo roles'. Gable had said, 'People are bored to death when I rough up disagreeable women, and I'm getting pretty sick of it myself.' Colbert had misbehaved too, making it acutely ironic that it was while both stars were being disciplined by their studios that they won their only Oscars.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Director: John Huston
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George and Peter Lorre

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Many years ago, this was my first exposure to classic Hollywood cinema. I loved it as a kid and I still love it today after a number of viewings. However, looking back now with much greater knowledge of the people involved, I realise with surprise that it was also to a large degree the first exposure for everyone else too. It's a film of firsts, with one surprising and ironic exception: it's a remake. Warner Brothers had already filmed Dashiell Hammett's novel twice. First The Maltese Falcon was a precode in 1931, directed by Roy Del Ruth with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and such memorable faces as Una Merkel, Thelma Todd and Dwight Frye backing him up. Then it was more loosely remade in 1936 as Satan Met a Lady with new character names; the great Warren William played Ted Shane and Bette Davis was the femme fatale, Valerie Purvis.

Remakes aside, everything else was new. It was the first film directed by John Huston, now remembered as one of the great American directors but then known primarily as the son of the noted actor Walter Huston and on a lesser level as a screenwriter, having progressed from writing dialogue for films like Murders in the Rue Morgue to contributing to the screenplays for Jezebel, Dr Ehrlich's Magic Bullet and Sergeant York. The success of his directorial debut led to a long and distinguished career that saw him direct many more notable films, including three that rank amongst the Top 250. One of them, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, won Oscars for both father (as Best Supporting Actor) and son (as Best Director). He even found time to act a little himself and appears in this list twice in that capacity, most notably as Noah Cross in Chinatown.

It was the first film to make a real star out of Humphrey Bogart who had spent the previous decade struggling to find his place in Hollywood. Mostly he languished in supporting roles behind Warner Brothers stars like James Cagney and Edward G Robinson, and his rare leading roles tended to be bizarre titles like Swing Your Lady, hardly starmaking material. It was his casting in this film that not only defined his roles for the rest of his career but also where Hollywood would go over the next decade. It's interesting to consider just how much different cinema would be today had first choice George Raft not turned the role down on the basis that his contract didn't require him to make unimportant films. Bogart would become a Huston regular, starring in no less than six of his films, one of which, The African Queen, would win him his only Oscar, eleven years later.

It was the first appearance on screen of the veteran English stage actor Sydney Greenstreet, who was over sixty years old at the time, three hundred pounds in weight and suffering from diabetes and Bright's disease. Yet he proved to be a natural from his very first scene on film, no less than 39 years after he debuted on stage in a 1902 production of Sherlock Holmes as a murderer. He was Oscar nominated for this role and went on to make 22 films, all within an eight year span during the forties. Nine of them, beginning with this one of course, paired him with Peter Lorre, making the very different couple a highly interesting double act. Even today, Greenstreet is one of the most recognisable and memorable of screen actors, making it hardly surprising that he became the model, rather unfortunately, for Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars.

Finally The Maltese Falcon is sometimes regarded as the first instance of film noir, though Stranger on the Third Floor, another Peter Lorre film from the previous year, may trump it on that count. Film noir is defined as a genre only by inclusion of certain key elements, such as morally ambiguous heroes, cleverly manipulative femmes fatale, crisp and tough dialogue, nihilistic or cynical outlooks on life and strongly expressionistic lighting and camerawork. It's also hard to define film noir because it was only invented as a genre in hindsight; none of the great noir directors knew they were making films noir at the time, unlike the directors of westerns, melodramas or horror movies who knew exactly where their films fit from the moment they started work on them.

The whole noir essence is what's important here though, far beyond the plot which is fundamentally simple, however elegantly and intricately it's explored. Various shady characters are searching for the McGuffin of the title, which is the statue of a bird, coated with gold and encrusted with jewels, sent in 1539 as tribute from the Knights Templar to Charles V of Spain who had given them the island of Malta, but lost in transit after the galley that carried it was seized by pirates. It may never have been seen again except in the imaginations of those over the centuries to come who were captivated by it, or perhaps it has a legendary history of death and adventure. As our hero, detective Sam Spade, memorably paraphrases Shakespeare, 'it's the stuff that dreams are made of.'

All these shady characters come together in San Francisco in anticipation that the falcon will soon join them, and their activities pull Spade into the mix, not least through the murder of his partner, Miles Archer. John Huston explores the mindset of each of his characters to an amazing degree, given how fast a ride this film is, a lean and mean 101 minutes. It's this exploration that really tells our story and what makes the film so successful is that everything backs it up. The script and the dialogue closely follow Dashiell Hammett's source novel and Hammett could write dialogue like nobody else. Every member of the cast, including the newcomer Sydney Greenstreet, is just perfect in their respective roles and it's impossible to picture anyone else playing them. That's amazing for a remake.

Humphrey Bogart is as definitive as anyone could be as Sam Spade. He's not as tough as Bogart's other defining hardboiled role, that of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, but he's just as cold, cynical and calculating. Spade is a much more versatile character than Marlowe and Bogart plays him wooden when being questioned by the police but dynamic when he's onto things. His face shows a whole range of emotions and his eyes are truly expressive, grinning as much as his mouth. He gets plenty of opportunity to grin here, in a rather sardonic way, which is rare for Bogie. Best of all is his voice, his inflection, which is exactly how we expect a tough private eye to sound. After Bogart nobody else really had much of a chance to refine the idea much further, however often they tried. He's so definitive that it's his take on the character that has been wrung to death ever since, even though he was merely the third actor to play the role.

The rest of the cast are also impeccable, so consistently solid that there are a bunch of obvious names to mention and a few underrated gems of performances too. Mary Astor is the femme fatale, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, who keeps pleading for help in many ways but without ever passing on her real motives. She acts differently in almost every scene because she's talking to different people who know different amounts about different things, and so she feeds them different information accordingly. It would be easy to think she overacts horribly but the key is that she's an actress playing an actress and just as Sam Spade can never be quite sure who or what she really is, neither can we.

Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman, is far less subtly mercenary than O'Shaughnessy. He's known as 'the fat man', which certainly fits Greenstreet's description as well as being a play on his character's surname, and Huston often shoots him from low angles to emphasize his bulk. His speech is superb and his laugh is even better. He's a very cool cucumber indeed, constantly passing out polite compliments like they're gifts. As he describes himself, he's 'a man not easily discouraged,' expecting to be in control of every situation but staying deliciously calm even when others have the upper hand. When Spade acts up a violent storm in his hotel room, he simply ignores him as if it isn't of any consequence whatsoever.

Peter Lorre is Peter Lorre and that's all we really need to know, as I don't think he's capable of giving a bad performance. To suggest that he shines as Joel Cairo is a powerful understatement. His first conversation with Spade is a piece of masterclass acting that gets better every time I see it. It isn't just his memorable voice, which he was having notable fun with by 1941. Time was he learned lines phonetically because he didn't understand English and of course was never a native speaker, but he still runs through his lines with as perfect intonation as there could ever be, a worthy foil for Greenstreet even though they share few scenes together. No wonder they were soon paired together so frequently.

It's not even just in how he looks, which is of course highly distinctive, but where he looks and for how long. It's about his smile and the tilt of his head and the angle of his tussled bow tie. It's in the way he moves his hands, especially when he's touching his cane. So many of these little things are cleverly subtle allusions to Cairo's homosexuality that would never have been allowed by the censors, if only they had noticed them. Then again, he's preceded to Spade's office by a card with the fragrance of gardenia. How could they miss that? Sydney Greenstreet was Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actor as another character easy to read as gay and he was truly great, but Lorre was just as good, even when being manhandled. 'When you're slapped you'll take it and like it,' snaps Spade. What a way to treat such a performance.

Elisha Cook Jr is memorable as Wilmer, Gutman's tough talking but relatively ineffective gunsel, a word that most people probably associate with this very character in this very film. I assumed it meant a gunman just as the censors probably did, but it's both slang for a stool pigeon and a homosexual insinuation in Yiddish. The part foreshadows similar excellent roles in The Big Sleep and The Killing that highlight just how great Cook was in this sort of role. He's a small operator compared to the rest of the principals, but as Spade comments, 'the cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.' As with everyone else, there are so many little details to pick up from his performance, such as the fact that he keeps the brim of his hat so low that he bumps into people as he follows Spade down the street.

After these sterling and very recognised performances come a host of underrated ones. Lee Patrick is Spade's highly efficient secretary Effie who knows Spade better than we do. She's very capable indeed but is still full of highly believable emotions, the template for all the many glamorous but knowing secretaries that would ground private eyes over the years. Gladys George is Spade's partner's wife who initially believes that Spade killed her husband so that he could marry her. There's even a small appearance from Huston's father Walter, as a ship's captain who delivers a package to Spade and dies in the process. He gets one line and he was shot before he gets it.

Each of these performances would have been noteworthy in any movie, but for all of them to come in the same film is astounding. Yet that's not all. There's plenty more talent on show beyond the acting, at levels of sophistication almost unheard of for a directorial debut, especially one with such a notably low budget, less than $300,000. The cityscape outside Sam Spade's office window isn't remotely believable and the sets are hardly expansive. Much of the story takes place in dialogue because with the actors already paid for, dialogue is cheap. Huston did the best with what he had and he did it very well indeed.

Then again, while Huston was making The Maltese Falcon, another young upstart of a first time director was making Citizen Kane and Orson Welles seems to define unheard of levels of sophistication. There must have been something in the water in Hollywood in 1941. While Welles's skill is overt and obviously paraded all over the screen, both Huston's direction and the work of his cinematographer Arthur Edeson are so smooth that it's often hard to even notice just how skilful they are. When people can do this much with so little budget, it sometimes feels to me that such restrictions should become compulsory. What could James Cameron do with only $300,000 and no CGI? I'd be fascinated to find out.

I watched The Maltese Falcon more than once for this project and only over time and through repeated viewings am I realising just how clever the choreography and composition of frame are. There are many scenes where we watch what's important rather than the people we would expect to see, because sometimes it's not what we see but what we don't see that's really important. The way characters are arranged and moved around during scenes is obviously clever from moment one but becomes even more so later in the film with no less than five principals in frame, a very awkward number, but each of them constantly seems to be in exactly the right place without getting in the way of anyone else, unless of course they're supposed to. That's a real magic trick to manage.

The biggest magic trick of all is in the fact that this film was fiction but still brought the legend it tells into reality. While probably inspired by the Kniphausen Hawk owned by the Duke of Devonshire, the Maltese Falcon is completely made up, but given the status that this film reached, the lead falcon that we see in this film subsequently reached the highest price ever paid for a movie prop when it was auctioned in 1994, nearly $400,000. The lead and resin falcons made for the film are now valued higher than Kaspar Gutman valued the real thing in the movie. A replica was also made, one that was exhibited at the Academy Awards in 1997. It was made of gold with ruby eyes and a 43 karat diamond hanging from a platinum chain in its beak. It's valued at over $8m, making it surely the stuff that dreams are made of. I wonder what stories it will create over the next four hundred years.

Psycho (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, John Gavin and Janet Leigh

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Psycho is the other undeniable Alfred Hitchcock classic that I'd seen before starting my IMDb project in 2004. However even if I hadn't already seen it, I'd still have known exactly what happens, due to the twists being possibly the most well known twists in cinematic history. Everyone and his dog knows that Norman Bates is the murderer, not his mother, and that knowledge does spoil the film a little now. It means that while it still carries a massive punch to this day, it's not quite the killer punch that it must have been back on theatrical release in 1960 with Hitchcock buying up as many copies of Robert Bloch's source novel as he could to pretty successfully protect the surprise.

This is why it's impossible to accurately review Psycho as a movie in 2004 when I began this review or in 2010 when I finished and posted it. Now fifty years old, it has become bigger than just a film, changing popular culture and influencing a huge amount of what came after, not least one modern remake, three sequels to the film and two sequels to the book. Almost everyone who has grown up on low budget horror movies should have a healthy respect for Psycho, which was Hitch's truest horror film. It directly led to almost everything that followed over the next decade, and even though newer films became subsequent direct influences for what came later, such as Mario Bava's Bay of Blood which defined the template for the slasher movie, it can all be sourced back to Hitchcock's achievement in making Psycho.

And it really was an achievement. Hitch was up against it from moment one and there were so many good reasons why Psycho was never going to be shot, never be released, never be successful. Nobody believed in the project except Hitch himself and even his studio was against him. Paramount distributed the movie but refused to let it be filmed on their lot, so it was made at Universal Studios instead. They hated the concept so much that they also refused to finance it or let him use any of their stars. So Hitch financed it himself, driven to do so because of a 1955 French horror thriller called Les Diaboliques. Its director, Henri-Georges Clouzot, was suddenly winning major awards and being described in print as better than Hitchcock, even though he was working in black and white with a tiny budget. Hitch raged at this and determined to outdo the Frenchman by avoiding another of what he starting calling his 'glossy Technicolor baubles' and instead making his own Les Diaboliques.

Hitchcock's previous film, North By Northwest, had been made at MGM for $3.3m, the biggest budget of any MGM film that year except the epic Ben Hur. By contrast he made the black and white Psycho for a whisker over $800,000, with a crew substantially comprised of the people who were used to making his hit TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, for a mere $129,000 per episode. It wasn't just the crew that worked for less money than was usual. Lead actor Anthony Perkins took home $40,000, less than a tenth of the $450,000 that Cary Grant had been paid for North By Northwest, and Grant had a percentage of the take on top of his salary too. Janet Leigh received only $25,000. Hitch himself traded his usual $250,000 director's fee for a 60% ownership of the negative in what must be one of the greatest business decisions there ever was, given that this was by far the biggest moneymaker of Hitchcock's entire career. It left him the third largest shareholder in Universal.

I'd seen Psycho a few times but this time round I made an honest but inevitably flawed attempt to pretend that I didn't know any of what was to come, and this way I realised the true mastery of the script. Nothing at all was telegraphed and all the way down the line everything pointed towards Norman's mother being the psycho of the title. It's a cinematic cliché to say it but Psycho really did have people fainting in their seats in shock and even Janet Leigh became famously scared to take a shower for most of the rest of her life, though she did increasingly return to the horror genre later for Night of the Lepus, The Fog and Halloween H20, though the latter pair have far more to do with the fact that her daughter is Jamie Lee Curtis than in any attempt to get scared all over again.

Leigh plays Marion Crane, who absconds with $40,000 of money from the Phoenix real estate firm she works at and heads west to California with the aim of marrying her boyfriend Sam Loomis. This sparks the inevitable manhunt, but she's clever enough to disguise her trail by trading in her car. She's a three dimensional character, one that we disagree with but sympathise with, who feels guilt and regret and who in the end resolves to head back to Phoenix to return the money she stole and turn herself in. Unfortunately by then she's already at the Bates Motel and we all know what happens there. Yes, it's where you'll find the shower scene, that legendary shower scene that everyone knows about even if they've never seen the film.

Looking back, nothing in the film up to that point suggested in the slightest what would happen in the shower, which appears to be there to symbolise her shedding of deceit and return to a life of moral cleanliness. It's one of these rare shockers that catch us totally by surprise. And it's crafted so well! There's not one shot of a wound though plenty of the knife. We see that knife come down again and again, accompanied by Bernard Herrmann's shrieking staccato strings, then many different viewpoints of Janet Leigh, taken over seven days of shooting. Then, dying, she grips the shower curtain and pops all those rings and we follow the chocolate sauce they used for blood ebbing down into the plughole which morphs into Marion Crane's dead eye. It's one of the most famous scenes that the cinema has ever given us and it's still an absolute masterpiece of technique.

It's not the only masterpiece in the film. All three of these performances go beyond excellent to truly classic: Janet Leigh, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates and Bernard Herrmann, the composer of the score. It's truly amazing to me that the only major award that the film received was a Golden Globe for Leigh as Best Supporting Actress. Neither Leigh or Perkins ever achieved these heights again. Perkins was memorable in supporting roles in a number of films late in life but eventually realised that he would be forever associated with the part of Norman Bates and so returned to play him again in two sequels in the '80s, the latter of which he also directed. Leigh's superb portrayal of guilt is unjustly forgotten and she remains famous mostly for that one death scene, as well as for marrying Tony Curtis and giving birth to Jamie Lee.

Only Herrmann, who of course is not seen in the film, could keep detached enough to be as distinctive elsewhere. He is regarded as one of the greatest composers for film there ever was, certainly one of the most frequently referenced, beginning with the very first notes of the very first film he provided a soundtrack for, Citizen Kane. He quickly went on to win an Oscar, amazingly the only one he'd ever receive, for a movie I hadn't previously heard of called All That Money Can Buy in 1941 (it's far better known under its reissue title of The Devil and Daniel Webster). Over time, he memorably scored many films for Hitchcock and Welles and other directors. His last film, Taxi Driver, is dedicated to him. This is one of his most memorable scores and no less a critic than Hitchcock himself suggested that '33% of the effect of Psycho was due to the music.'

Outside of these stars, the names involved are more obscure. Vera Miles plays Marion Crane's sister Lila, who teams up with Sam Loomis to track her down to the Bates Motel. While she does a good job, I kept wondering about her being Hitchcock's original choice for the dual role in Vertigo that Kim Novak played so well. Apparently Hitch was still upset about her letting him down for that film (through becoming pregnant) that he hired her for Psycho purely to revel in making her play a dowdy supporting role for little money. Loomis is played by John Gavin, a politician as well as an actor, who Ronald Reagan appointed Ambassador to Mexico. He served as the lead in a couple of Douglas Sirk/Ross Hunter soaps in the fifties and played Julius Caesar in Kubrick's Spartacus, but he could have been remembered as James Bond. In fact he was paid his full expected salary for succeeding George Lazenby as 007 but when the studio finally persuaded Sean Connery back instead, he lost out on the part.

There's also Martin Balsam, who started out his career in On the Waterfront and 12 Angry Men and notched up his third Top 250 movie three years later with Psycho; prolific film and TV actor John McIntire; and recognisable face Frank Albertson, here close to the end of his career; but it's Patricia Hitchcock and Simon Oakland who ring bells for me. Pat Hitchcock was the director's daughter, here playing one of Marion Crane's co-workers in Phoenix. She only appeared in six films but three were for her father, who makes his traditional cameo here outside her workplace. Oakland is a renowned character actor who has long brought me joy as Darren McGavin's beleaguered boss Tony Vincenzo in the highly underrated TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Here he's the county psychologist who explains everything at the end.

There's another name that deserves mention: Saul Bass. Much of the credit for the famous shower scene is due to him, a graphic designer who had previously worked with Hitchcock on the credits for Vertigo and North By Northwest. He was young and relatively inexperienced but was still gaining renown for his work to the degree that there had already become a cliché among critics: 'The best thing about the movie is the Saul Bass credits.' Once you see them, you'll recognise them again and again and there seems to be a trend nowadays for young graphic artists to redesign classic movie posters in the style of Saul Bass. Hitch gave him much more to do here, including the storyboarding of the shower scene and a couple of other crucial scenes too. As screen nudity was absolutely out of the question, it was Bass who came up with the idea of a montage sequence that would look intensely violent yet contain no actual violence. It's impossible to ignore the impact of his contribution.

It's even more impossible to ignore Hitchcock's. One of the reasons that Paramount hated his ideas for Psycho was because he really pushed the envelope. We never get to see Janet Leigh nude in the shower, though the scene is so suggestive that three of the seven censors who had to decide whether to pass the film thought they did. Hitch was required to cut the nudity, but he merely repacked the film and sent it back unaltered. The three censors who saw nudity before didn't see it now and the scene was safe. The advertising for the film was far from safe though: it saw Janet Leigh shockingly half dressed in just a slip and bra. This sort of thing simply wasn't done.

There was plenty more that simply wasn't done too. Leigh, who appears to be and was advertised as being the heroine of the movie, is amazingly killed off in the first half, confusing audiences no end. The plot that surrounds her turns out to not be the plot of the film, merely a setup. Another taboo broken may not sound like much today but Psycho contains the first instance of a toilet being flushed on film. More subversively, Hitchcock deliberately involved the audience directly in the voyeurism of Norman Bates, by using 50mm lenses for closeups instead of the usual 35mm, thus giving a closer approximation of human vision. When Bates peeks through the wall at his soon to be victim, we are right there with him becoming part of his act.

The shocks also continued after the film had been completed. Knowing that he had no major stars and that he couldn't say much about the plot, Hitch mounted a publicity campaign that sounds like something legendary low budget exploitation filmmakers like William Castle would do. He sent out two twenty page manuals on 'The Care and Handling of Psycho' to exhibitors, instructing them, among other things, on how to hire Pinkerton detectives to enforce the admission policies. He also made three legendary trailers, none of which included a single shot from the film. The third and most famous was a guided tour of the Bates Motel with narration by Hitchcock that cleverly reinforced our misconceptions without ever lying to us. Most shockingly, he gave a stipulation to theatres across the country that absolutely nobody could be let in after the film had started, something he borrowed from Les Diaboliques.

And while nobody believed it ahead of time, Psycho changed the world of cinema forever. While many critics panned the film on initial release, they were forced to reevaluate their thinking given the huge reception it received from the public. From the first showings it was a hit, a massive hit. Hitchcock's low budget experiment was making more money and more impact than any of those 'glossy Technicolor baubles' he had previously been scoring hits with. People were laughing, screaming, fainting, turning Psycho into a phenomenon. While foreknowledge of the twists does diminish the movie a little, it still shocks us and scares us and carries a serious punch today. That's a big achievement in itself, but probably the biggest is that after Hitchcock had entreated the audience in the trailers not to give away the ending, to a large degree they didn't. That, above even the shower scene, stuns me.

Rear Window (1954)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Star: James Stewart

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Nobody ever seems to be able to agree about which of Alfred Hitchcock's movies is the best, but two in particular tend to fight it out at the top: Psycho and Rear Window. Maybe it's impossible for most people to choose between these two because they're so fundamentally different. One is a cheaply produced minimalistic black and white thriller that turned cinema on its head and the other is a big budget colour movie that relished its cleverness. Perhaps some would choose the latter over the former because there's no reliance on one particular shock disclosure that nowadays everyone already knows about. Then again, watch Psycho for the nth time, even with the foreknowledge of having seen it probably a couple of times already, and see if it doesn't kick you on your ass once more anyway.

What can be agreed on by everyone is that Rear Window is a massive achievement. Every single word seems as well crafted as the huge set, which encompassed 31 complete apartments and was at the time the largest ever built indoors on the Paramount lot, so big that they had to excavate the studio floor to fit it in. Each performance seems to be exactly perfect and the direction is unmatched, especially given the restrictions that Hitchcock put himself under, something that he did often. For Rope he tried to make the film seem like one long eighty minute shot, but as 35mm cameras only handle eight minute spools he was forced to pan into something entirely black every eight minutes or so to enable seamless editing. For Lifeboat he worked mostly in close-ups to emphasise the claustrophobic nature of the boat. In Rear Window he shot almost every scene from a single apartment, that of a photographer called L B 'Jeff' Jefferies, played by James Stewart.

The reason for this is that Jeff broke his leg on assignment and is now confined not just to his apartment but also to a wheelchair and a substantial plaster cast that encases more than just his leg. Without being able to indulge in his highly active lifestyle he instead becomes engrossed with the lives of his neighbours in surrounding apartments whom he can easily see out of his window, a world into which we're invited too as the opening credits roll and the blinds on his windows are raised. In a morally intriguing casting decision, the 1998 TV movie remake saw Christopher Reeve in the equivalent part of Jason Kemp, Reeve having become a quadroplegic after a riding accident three years earlier. While Reeve couldn't leave his wheelchair, Stewart merely didn't, but he made the most of the restrictions it gave him.

Jeff isn't looking to be a voyeur, pun very much intended, though that's basically what he becomes and we join him. He wants to head out on assignment and take photos from a jeep or a water buffalo or whatever there is to hand but his magazine won't let him. So he spends his time watching everyday lives. A couple of newlyweds move into their new apartment and promptly pull their blind down; a songwriter practices his new composition while Hitch winds his clock; and an older married couple sleep out on their fire escape, at least while its not raining. It's easy to watch Miss Torso, the ballet dancer, because she doesn't wear much and she does her stretching exercises while she makes breakfast. It's certainly far more fun to watch her bend over for the camera than to watch Miss Lonelyhearts sitting down to a romantic dinner with a non-existent date.

Most of all though he watched Lars Thorwald. He's a severe looking man played by Raymond Burr who has a shock of white hair and a nagging bedridden wife. They obviously have problems, lots of problems, though of course we end up struggling to hear snippets because we're stuck with Jeff in his apartment, but before long Mrs Thorwald disappears, suddenly and without any apparent warning. We do hear a cry and the sound of breaking glass but it could have come from anywhere and Jeff was dropping off at the time. However it becomes the first hint of many that perhaps something has happened and Jeff, stuck in his fifth week of enforced inactivity with nothing to do except watch and think, decides that Lars Thorwald has murdered his wife.

There are murder mysteries galore, but they pretty much all tend to start with a corpse. Those that don't, like Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery, all owe their existence to this one. Rear Window is a murder mystery without a murder, at least as far as everyone except Jeff believes, and so it has an extra dollop of mystery just to redress the balance. There is no proof whatsoever that a murder has taken place and even when he tries, Jeff can't find any. All the leads he manages to conjure up lead precisely nowhere, but he stays firm in his belief, hooked on details. 'Why would a man leave his apartment three times on a rainy night with a suitcase and come back three times?' he asks, and gradually persuades those around him into believing too. In his way he's Juror No 8 from 12 Angry Men, merely with a different motive.

As Jeff can't leave his apartment, his legwork gets done by an obliging detective friend, with a little help from his nurse and his girlfriend. The detective, Det Lt Thomas Doyle, is played by Wendell Corey who I didn't know in the slightest, even though he took a few years out from acting in the early sixties to become President of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. I've since seen him in The Big Knife, Any Number Can Play and Sorry, Wrong Number, but I'm still waiting to see his final performance in the legendary Ted V Mikels picture The Astro-Zombies, with John Carradine and Tura Satana.

Stella, the nurse, is Thelma Ritter who I was more than happy to discover again and again in other films as varied as The Misfits, How the West Was Won and Pickup on South Street. The big title I've yet to see is All About Eve, which will come later in this project. Here she gets most of the lines dealing with home truths and she relishes each of them, including the one about us becoming a race of peeping toms who should get outside our houses and look in for a change. She's a gem, one with a dry sense of humour. 'Intelligence,' she says. 'Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence.'

The girlfriend is Lisa Carol Fremont, played by Grace Kelly, who I found cropping up as often as Jimmy Stewart in the films I was working through in 2004, so much so that she became the first real star whose filmography I completed. Asta, the dog from The Thin Man, really doesn't count, right? Then again he has six credits at IMDb and appears in more Top 250 movies than Bette Davis. That ought to count for something. Anyway this review completes Grace Kelly's filmography in reviews at Apocalypse Later. Kelly was an Oscar winner for The Country Girl, appeared in another Top 250 movie, High Noon, and made two other Hitchcock films, Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief. Those six years were busy ones.

While I may be biased by knowing that she was soon to become the widely adored Princess Grace of Monaco, it seems obvious watching her films that she had so much genuine class and charm that it's a shame that the film world had to lose her so soon. Here she's a classy socialite who wants to marry Jimmy Stewart while knowing that she may yet lose him because they lead such different lives. She's happy to be with him but sad that she may not be with him for much longer, because she feels correctly that he's waiting for someone who will go everywhere with him and do everything rather than someone to come home to. As he tells Stella, 'She's too perfect, she's too talented, she's too beautiful, she's too sophisticated.' Kelly portrays those descriptions and that conflict as magnificently as her growing interest in the supposed murder. It's a shame I have no more Grace Kelly films to discover.

Raymond Burr, alone of the many occupants of the nearby apartments, actually gets to act in something other than distance shots. We do get to follow the lives of Miss Torso and Miss Lonely Hearts and the songwriter and the newlyweds and the couple who sleep on the fire escape while their dog lives inside, but always only from a distance, through Jeff's apartment window. Burr's character, Lars Thorwald, is the focus of Jimmy Stewart's attention as the potential murderer and so we get to see him a little closer up. Burr is still probably best known in the States for the TV shows he made later in life: Perry Mason and Ironside, the latter of which saw him appropriately confined to a wheelchair given that this film was both the most prominent picture he ever made and the biggest film to feature a wheelchair bound lead character.

He began as a film actor though and made a slew of movies going back as far as 1940. He always looks a little different in early films like San Quentin, Key to the City and A Place in the Sun, let alone something like William Castle's Serpent of the Nile in which he played Mark Antony. His best known film other than this is probably Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the American version of Gojira, with all the Hiroshima and Nagasaki scenes cut out, but though he was highighted as the star, all his scenes were shot in a single day for contract reasons and edited into the original picture for US release. He looks utterly different here with scary eyes and white hair. Hitchcock apparently chose him for the part entirely because of a physical resemblance to the producer he had clashed with most, David O Selznick, but whatever his reasons he chose well.

And then there's Jimmy Stewart. Already in this project I've seen him in Vertigo, Harvey and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, three thoroughly different movies, ones that amply highlighted how he became one of the most beloved actors Hollywood has yet produced. He certainly had one of the most distinctive voices but that's not really what makes him special; it's the magical way he can connect with his audience. He could be a cop or a drunk or a senator, but whichever he was at the time, he always made us feel as if we could just walk up and say hi. However many great films he made though, he may not have ever played a better role than this one. He is the lead character around whom the entire film revolves, yet he spends the entire time in a huge plaster cast unable to move.

Above everything else, it's this immobility that makes the film. We become as stuck in Jeff's apartment as he is and we join in his voyeuristic addiction. Filmgoing by nature is a voyeuristic experience: we, the audience, sit there doing precisely nothing except watching the action unfold. In Rear Window, the lead character is doing exactly what we're doing, yet the way he does it is morally dubious. The way Hitch put himself under the same restriction as Jeff, and by extension us, was a stroke of sheer genius. To take it even further, he had all the apartments in Thorwald's block made fully functional with working water and electricity; and Georgine Darcy, who played Miss Torso, spent the entire month long shoot living in the apartment she occupied in the film.

Having started my IMDb project in 2004 with only four Hitchcocks behind me, most of them consequently became first time treats, but I had seen Rear Window before. It does say a lot for a suspense film that I loved it not just first time round but second time too. Because of the inherent suspense he conjures up and the stunning surprises that he hits us with, some Hitchcocks ought to be lessened by necessity on further viewings, such as Vertigo or Psycho, but even knowing the surprises that Rear Window had in store, it was still awesome to watch. It was listed as the 14th greatest film of all time when I grabbed my working copy of the IMDb Top 250 in 2004 but even after dropping a few spots to 20th over the last six years, it holds its place as the highest Hitchcock on this list.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Shadow of a Doubt was a strange one for me to watch, given a rather unfortunate honorific that it carries. I only had a few Hitchcocks under my belt before I began working through his filmography in 2004, and while they were some of the greats (like Rear Window and Psycho) they were still only a few. Blistering through a couple of dozen more that year, I soon began to recognise the themes and techniques that the great director kept coming back to, the volume helping immensely to provide an understanding of his body of work through pattern recognition. What makes Shadow of a Doubt strange to watch is that it was apparently Hitch's personal favourite of all his films, and who better is there to judge? Well, perhaps 'favourite' doesn't necessarily translate to 'greatest'.

Looking back now from a safer vantage point, having seen over forty of Hitch's movies, it's clear that his greatest films came in Hollywood, dotted throughout a few decades, but my favourites thus far are simpler earlier ones like Sabotage, The Lady Vanishes and the film he made before this one, Saboteur. The problem here is that this one doesn't seem to fit into either category, instead fitting strangely into a category all of its own. I've found that most Hitchcock movies improve on further viewings, even if they were classics from the first time through, but this one actually felt lesser. Never mind the title, this seems to be a lesson in inevitability, a clever one in many ways but an inevitable one nonetheless, and that's hardly Hitch's way of doing things.

The most obvious comparison is to Suspicion, which Hitch made two years earlier in 1941, when this film was set, suggesting an even closer tie than just the theme. In Suspicion Cary Grant marries Joan Fontaine, who over time becomes more and more convinced that he is a murderer whose next victim will be her. Shadow of a Doubt has Joseph Cotten move in with his sister's family, one of whom over time becomes more and more convinced that he is a murderer whose next victim will be her. Intriguingly the part was originally written for Joan Fontaine.

Of course the power of both films is in the way Hitchcock manipulates his viewers, how he sets us up to believe that Cary Grant and Joseph Cotten are murderers only to turn tail and set us up to believe that they're not. Which red herrings are really red herrings? Watching these two films sometimes made me feel like one of the jurors in 12 Angry Men, beginning with the assurance that of course they're guilty as charged but that maybe if we examine the details we'll find one that inextricably proves that they aren't. That's an important judgement to make, given that the Merry Widow Killer is a cold blooded murderer who has already strangled three elderly women to death.

Cotten plays Charles Oakley, who we first find in bed, fully dressed with money scattered around him. He's a suspicious character who doesn't seem to know what he wants, if indeed he wants anything. At first he appears to be a strange throwback into black and white of an example of the Whatever generation, but he sparks up because at least he knows that he has to avoid the two 'friends' who come to see him, two men who hang around at the corner looking innocent and pretending not to recognise him. He gives them the slip and has a wire sent to Santa Rosa, as a heads up to his elder sister Emma that he's going to visit and stay for a while.

As he wires, Charlotte Newton, his niece who was even named Charlie for him, is lying in bed too wondering how her family has gone to pieces. They're in a rut, she thinks, and she calls herself 'a nagging old maid', even though she's only just out of high school. She's waiting for a miracle and suddenly she thinks that Uncle Charlie is it, so much so that she wants to send him a telegram to come shake them up, not realising that he's sent them a telegram to say he's coming already. He'll be there on Thursday and this news tells her that they have a telepathic link. Well, it isn't quite what she thinks it is.

Santa Rosa is very nice, a stark contrast to the derelict and beaten up nature of the buildings wherever he was previously, Philadelphia apparently. The Newtons are very nice too, whatever doom and gloom young Charlie initially suggests at, an all-American family where pop works at the bank and mom keeps herself busy housekeeping. They're Joseph and Emma Newton, in the able form of Patricia Collinge and Henry Travers. If Collinge isn't the epitome of the small town mom of 1941, I don't know who would be. The kids are bright, cheerful and unique. Charlie is the eldest, followed by little Ann, who is polite but precocious, trying to keep her mind clear for important things. She reads two books a week and believes they're all true. Roger, the youngest, counts his footsteps everywhere. We don't see too much of him but when we do he makes his presence known.

And into this small town routine comes Uncle Charlie, as suspicious to his namesake from moment one as he was to us, this time because he appears to be an invalid when he gets off the train, only to perk right up and shrug off all ills the moment he catches sight of her. As time goes by he only gets more suspicious, every little detail pointing towards his being the Merry Widow Killer, Hitch ably holding back that actual revelation until later, simply building our distrust of him before pointing us to the underlying reason.

Emma Newton keeps humming a tune and when young Charlie tries to identify it, he poorly pretends a lack of recognition. It's the Merry Widow Waltz, of course. When he sees something in Joe's evening paper that he doesn't want anyone to see, he turns the paper into a house to impress the kids and surreptitiously pockets a couple of pages. Later when young Charlie calls him on it in fun, he gets serious. He does that a lot, like when he points out how happy he is that he's never been photographed, only for young Charlie to bring an old childhood photo of him that she's kept safe. After opening an account at Joe's bank where he drops in $40,000 of apparent loose change, he focuses on Mrs Potter, who wears a veil, presuming correctly that she's a widow. Even the emerald ring he gives Charlie has a faint inscription on it that he didn't notice, complete with telltale initials, 'to TS from BM'.

One reason that he doesn't seem to be particularly suspicious to the Newtons is that he's family. Another is that they're innocent and naive in that way that only pre-war small town Americans tended to be. We're slipped the date of 1941 in passing, so this is before Pearl Harbor when Santa Rosa could have been light years away from the war in Europe. To these folks, there was nothing further east than Boston harbour and 'Nazi' was merely a word they simply hadn't heard yet or if they had it hadn't registered. They're so full of naive goodness that anyone with skills in social engineering could tie them all into knots without much of an effort. If e-mail spam existed back then, they'd be buried in little blue pills without the faintest idea what do with them.

So when a couple of very pushy characters, Jack Graham and Fred Saunders, turn up from the National Public Survey to interview everyone in the family and take photos of them all, of course they'll help out. When Uncle Charlie doesn't want anything to do with them, they just can't understand why but they're sure he has his reasons. What does he do? Well he's in business, like men are, you know. When Charlie Newton rumbles Jack Graham as a detective, he confides in her and so we're really off and running but without any real mystery or suspense, making everything seem a little odd.

Of course the sheer volume of hints tells us that Uncle Charlie must be the Merry Widow Killer and they're continually reinforced, every one a little less subtle than the last. This role was intended for William Powell, but MGM refused to make him available. Cotten is an excellent substitute, though his sinister scenes are often awkward because he has to play overtly to us but in a way that the other characters don't notice. He's certainly the only character with any real depth here, even though he only gets the second credit after Teresa Wright, who had recently become the only performer to ever be nominated for Academy Awards for each of her first three films. This was her fourth after The Little Foxes, Mrs Miniver and The Pride of the Yankees.

I was really surprised to find that Shadow of a Doubt was Hitchcock's favourite of his own films, because there's nothing in it that would suggest why. It's not his most personal film, which is undeniably Vertigo. It's not his most highly regarded, as Rear Window heads a list of no less than seven of his films that are rated higher in the IMDb Top 250 and it doesn't make any of the AFI lists. There are no great set pieces like the Statue of Liberty scene in Saboteur or the Mount Rushmore scene in North By Northwest. Admittedly it begins with a landmark, but not one we're likely to recognise and which is presumably there only to highlight that we begin on the wrong side of the river in the seedy part of town. After all it's a New Jersey bridge moonlighting in Philadelphia. Hitch's wife Alma Reville contributed to the screenplay but she wasn't the only one and she was hardly new to that role in his films. It didn't even have one of his usual blondes in the lead, top billed Teresa Wright being a brunette.

So why was he so fond of it? Initially I thought it might tie to Herb Hawkins, in the able form of Hume Cronyn playing much older than his years. This was his debut film and it marked the beginning of a long friendship between him and Hitchcock. He's a neighbour of the Newtons who has a relish for the intracies of murder, roughly similar to the role Auriol Lee had in Suspicion, but where she was a writer of detective fiction, he's just an amateur with a wonderfully tentative voice and an inquisitive nature. He spends his time wondering about how to commit the perfect murder, then discussing it as often as he can with Joe Newton, even somehow personalising the concept while keeping it abstract. 'We're not talking about killing people. Herb's talking about killing me and I'm talking about killing him,' says Joe. So perhaps Shadow of a Doubt was a second attempt at Suspicion and Auriol Lee and Hume Cronyn are merely playing Alfred Hitchcock.

Watching through for a second time I don't buy this any more. Hitchcock covered the concept often, not least five years later in Rope, which was all about the intellectual approach to the perfect murder, with all the arrogance needed to cover taking it to the experimentation stage. In fact that time, Hume Cronyn co-wrote the script. Now I don't believe that Shadow of a Doubt was even intended to be a suspense movie, a thriller in the way that Hitch was generally known for. Instead I think that with this film, Hitch predated the work of a number of modern day filmmakers, not least David Lynch and Lars von Trier, who are so good at showing the dark side of small town America.

I think Santa Rosa is set up to be the American dream, and Uncle Charlie is reality making its presence known in no uncertain terms. There's reality there already of course, but only after he arrives do we see bars, read headlines and hear about murders. When he drags his niece into one of those bars, he's immediately at home but she couldn't be further from it even though it's her town. The waitress, who'd attended the same school, could have been from another planet. In Santa Rosa, cops just help folks safely across the street, the only ones who actually have anything to investigate being the ones who ship in to follow Uncle Charlie. To add that small town flavour, some of the cast weren't professional actors, merely picked from the many locals in Santa Rosa who followed the film crew around, including Estelle Jewell and Edna May Wonacott, who is highly memorable as the precocious Ann Newton.

The point of Herb Hawkins is not to portray Hitchcock himself in character form, it's that while he's utterly driven to think about the dark side of human nature all the time, he doesn't notice it when it's right under his nose, even when Uncle Charlie veers off at the dinner table into an undeniably creepy monologue, misogynistic in the extreme, something that nobody in their right mind could ignore. David Lynch certainly noticed and Thornton Wilder must have done given that he wrote most of the script and was singled out for attention in the opening credits. Significantly, Wilder had written Our Town a few years earlier, one of the great glorifications of small town America. This is its dark side.

Monday 22 February 2010

The Ends of the Earth (2009)

Director: Rustin Thompson

We see lots of the Earth as our film opens. We see the waves and the fields and the beach. It's cinematically decent, painting textures with the terrain. It all looks very familiar, though apparently this is the northwest quadrant of Moonstone Island and we're in March 2021. A narrator tells us about Jonah Wales, who is apparently dead on the beach, but we have to leap around in time a whole bunch before we can figure out why he's dead. Three days earlier, the film tells us, we're in March 2075 at a Worldline portal and we start discovering what the story is about.

We're fifty years in from a bacterial outbreak that wiped out all human life above ground and a year in to our tech's tenure in this tent. He's monitoring the environment while keeping alive through liberal doses of a drug called doxycyclene and getting ready to timejump young Worldline agent Jonah to 2021. Young Jonah was born that very year, grows up fast and learns plenty at the Timelink Training Academy until 2038 when he's sent back in time as a Worldline agent to Moonstone Island in the year he was born. Apparently the locals survived the plague, at least for a while until the homeland security folks executed them for doing precisely that, and he needs to find out why.

This is a slow, slow film, apparently content to spend much of its time showing us the planet and exuding the feeling of loneliness at us and backing it up with a haunting soundtrack. In and around this spaces we get our story, which is actually a pretty deep thing, speaking to ultimate sacrifice and the end of the world in a very human way. Rustin Thompson, who wrote and directed, obviously had high aspirations but I get the impression that he couldn't make up his mind which approach he really wanted to take.

There's a sort of Koyaanisqatsi visual approach that gets under your skin, watching the textures and the tones and the well framed cinematography. This approach leads us to wish that the story would just go away so we could let this collection of images float over us. But then there's the story, which we can't ignore, even as we drift off into half sleep during the spaces. It keeps us watching to find out how it will play out, but it plays out like a manifesto, a calm rage without any answers. It has so many questions to ask but it has no answers to offer in response.

The other thing I couldn't fail to notice here was the aspirations to grandeur that Thompson must have. He's obviously a man of taste: he has our 2075 agent reading Cahiers du cinéma and with both A Boy and His Dog and Solaris in his VHS collection. The younger Jonah has Jean-Luc Godard posters on his wall. We see futuristic video footage from Ozu Industries, which name is very telling. The names of the greats are everywhere in this film, as if they could bring Thompson luck to be able to join them.

Well, he isn't there, at least not with this film, but it's a serious science fiction picture in a world where that's a rarity and it would seem to be utterly his film. He didn't just write and direct, he wrote the music too, photographed the film and edited it too. What he didn't do was edit it the way it should have been edited. This should have been an astoundingly good 40 minute long short. Instead it's an 80 minute film that alternates between commanding our attention and sending us to sleep.

Time-Men (2009)

Director: Mark Gumbinger
Stars: Ramon Flores, Steve Neahous, Elizabeth Moore and Louis Rugani

'Ever feel like we're wasting our time?' says Alex, one of our two lead characters. He and his friend Ben have fun and learn cool stuff but they never actually do anything. They need a purpose, so they come up with a great new idea. Why not invent time travel, so they can go all Michael J Fox and become heroes by changing the past? And yeah, it comes out of the blue that quickly and they take it that seriously. Conveniently they have a time travel lecture the next day so they can throw questions at their professor.

The catch is that they're dweebs, utter dweebs, well beyond the horrendous level of acting which isn't up to any realistic standard. But at least the acting is better than the script. Now I'm no physicist but I have some scientific and computing knowledge and this script is dumber than an episode of CSI: Miami, which really takes something. The whole thing can be summed up by this amazing slice of dialogue: 'I don't understand what we're doing wrong,' says Alex. 'It's got to be our wireless connection,' replies Ben. 'It's not strong enough to create a wormhole.'

Yeah. OK. So with this grasp of physics, they drive off down the road in mom's Mercedes to test their new time machine. It's a really complex affair: they hook up a metal belt to a battery, place it on the back seat and put an apple in the middle. Naturally it works and the apple moves in time. So they take it to the next step. The TV newscaster says a boy was killed after being hit by a car, so back goes Alex to save him, naturally taking the ultimate precaution: he wears a camouflaged bike helmet.

I just love how ludicrous this gets. It really is the modern equivalent of the sort of science fiction film from the fifties that Joel and the robots made fun of. I couldn't help but watch this and picture those guys riffing the crap out of this. It's a gift for them because there are so many riffable scenes, from Ben's mom trying it on with Alex in the kitchen to her impromptu romance scene with Dr Steiner, the time travel professor; from Dr Steiner dreaming himself into a North By Northwest scene to the ludicrous scene where Ben argues with himself into converging with himself and becoming a speed reader.

And there's one of the most truly awesome B movie lines of all time: 'Science, you truly are a bastard!' How can we ignore a film with a line like that? How about, 'I'll start saving people when they're on the endangered species list'? And beyond the dialogue, can we resist the gratuitous running through the fields scene, or the childish romance scene in the playground? How about the worst bar fight of all time? How about Dr Steiner's dental floss scene or the laptop fight or the rape scene with all it's repetition of the word 'hard'?

How about Ben getting all Terminator psycho after his convergence with himself? This character development is truly awesome. He becomes a genius, so much so that he thinks one cubed is there. He has developed amazing technology like the cure for cancer but can't figure out how use a chair. He rapes Alex's girlfriend Liz because he decides he hates Alex but then he kills someone who hits him in a bar. He even gets a slow motion push scene.

Really the only problem with this is the fact that it knows it's a low budget movie and doesn't try to pretend it isn't. If this had been made by Tommy Wiseau it would be something pretty close to the same thing but it would have cost six million dollars and thought it was Citizen Kane. That's what made The Room so stunning: it thought it was better than it was. This doesn't and somehow I wish it did. Somehow I wish this was Wiseau's science fiction film and producer/director Mark Gumbinger's other film Mortuary Girls was Wiseau's horror movie. I so have to get hold of it now.