Hitch’s second U.S. film sets the bar for the rest of his career

“Foreign Correspondent” (1940) was recently released on Blu-ray/DVD (dual edition) by Criterion.

By Michael Wilmington

Foreign Corr posterAlfred Hitchcock started his American filmmaking career with a bang, directing a Best Picture Oscar winner and an inarguable classic: his 1940 David O. Selznick-produced film of Daphne du Maurier’s immensely popular Gothic romantic novel “Rebecca.” Though he was under the control of Selznick at his zenith (the year after “Gone With the Wind”), Hitch executed the assignment with near-flawless skill  and panache.

He beautifully dramatizes du Maurier’s romantic tale of a naïve young wife (Joan Fontaine) taken to a mansion by her wealthy new husband (Laurence Olivier), who may have murdered his haunting first wife, Rebecca.

But “Rebecca” wasn’t Hitch’s only 1940 film. Nor is it the one that some Hitchcock critics (and maybe even Hitchcock himself) consider the inarguable classic. Shortly after completing “Rebecca,” and freeing himself from the fealty Selznick felt was owed to du Maurier’s novel, Hitchcock made a second American movie.

This new work was a continuation of the style and technique of the delightfully frightening suspense thrillers he’d made in England in the ’30s: notably “The 39 Steps,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “The Lady Vanishes.”

That second Hitchcock movie was “Foreign Correspondent,” produced by Walter Wanger: a top-notch melodrama of international intrigue and nail-biting suspense that was set in the early days of World War II. Starring the sturdily all-American guy Joel McCrea (Hitch had wanted Gary Cooper) and love interest Laraine Day (Hitch had wanted Fontaine), it was a movie that unabashedly called  for the U.S. to enter the war against Germany, on the side of Hitchcock’s beleaguered homeland Great Britain.

That’s the conclusion McCrea’s pugnacious but immensely likable reporter Johnny Jones (pen name: Huntley Haverstock) reaches after being sent overseas as The New York Globe’s foreign correspondent and witnessing Germany’s murderous espionage and sabotage. As bodies and evidence accumulate, Johnny/Haverstock chases down a Nazi spy ring in England and Holland.

In company with Johnny: the head of an ambiguous peace organization (Herbert Marshall), his beauteous daughter (Day), a suave and plucky British fellow reporter (George Sanders), a kidnapped Dutch diplomat (Albert Bassermann), and assorted spies, officials, killers and bystanders (Edmund Gwenn, Robert Benchley, Eduardo Ciannelli and others). They race from one hair-raising Hitchcockian set-piece to the next; finally culminating in a plane crash, with McCrea and others in the cockpit.

It’s the sort of  convulsively paced, thoroughly engrossing and purely entertaining tale Hitchcock loved to make, with an audience-pleasing flair and imagination that would have been entirely out of place in a faithful classic adaptation like “Rebecca.” But “Foreign Correspondent” was a clear precursor of Hitchcock’s later career and also of the James Bond spy thrillers of the ’60s and beyond, which were partly inspired by his work.

Selznick would not allow Hitchcock to change any of “Rebecca” (except for his habitual joke-cameo appearance). While Selznick has probably been proven right by the film’s 1940 Oscars and continued classic status, “Foreign Correspondent” (which was nominated for six Oscars), has also been validated as the more truly Hitchcockian movie.

It’s full of virtuoso set-pieces, like the windmills that are turning against the wind, the climactic plane crash, the famed umbrella-knocking assassination scene, and other logic-defying moments inserted in defiance of the critics and carpers whom The Master of Suspense dismissively called “The Plausibles.”

Hitch makes his cameo in "Foreign Correspondent."

Hitch makes his cameo in “Foreign Correspondent.”

“Foreign Correspondent” was scripted by Hitchcock’s regular collaborators Charles Bennett and Joan Harrison, with dialogue by James Hilton (the novelist who wrote “Goodbye Mr. Chips”) and the Algonquin Round Table’s resident wit Robert Benchley (who also appears in the cast as a fellow reporter). The source was an actual foreign correspondent’s memoir, “Personal History” by Vincent Sheean.

One of the uncredited writers on “Foreign Correspondent” was Richard Maibaum, who was later the main Bond series screenwriter. Besides Maibaum, the remarkable gallery of uncredited writers on the project includes Ben Hecht, Harold Clurman, John Howard Lawson, John Lee Mahin and Budd Schulberg, or almost everyone in Hollywood, it seems, but William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Of course, there was the script-shaping genius of Hitchcock himself (and of his wife Alma): Hitchcock, who of all non-actor movie directors, is perhaps the most visibly present in his films. We sense him in and behind nearly every shot.

But he’s more present in “Foreign Correspondent” than in “Rebecca.” Freed for the moment from Selznick (they would make two more pictures together), Hitch charts the major direction he would follow right up to the end of his career: the ingenious set-pieces, the games with the audience, the personal touches and brilliant identification devices.

He also produced a film proselytizing for America’s entrance into the war with the Allies and against the Nazi juggernaut that was admired as propaganda by no less an expert than Joseph Goebbels himself.

Criterion’s extras include a 1972 interview with Hitchcock by Dick Cavett and a 1946 radio adaptation of “Foreign Correspondent” with Joseph Cotten.

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Blogathon to bring ‘The White Shadow’ to your computer

I am re-running my most recent Hitchcock review to support For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon III, hosted by Ferdy on Films, the Self-Styled Siren and This Island Rod.

Working with National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF), this blogathon aims to bring “The White Shadow,” a 1923 melodrama, to a wider audience. Directed by Graham Cutts, it was also the first film Alfred Hitchcock had a major role in creating (assistant director, screenwriter, film editor, production designer, art director, set decorator). The film was restored in New Zealand and repremiered by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last September at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Los Angeles.

To make “The White Shadow” available for free on its web site, the NFPF needs to raise $15,000. This money will allow the foundation to host and stream the film for four months and to record Michael Mortilla’s marvelous new score. It is the mission of this year’s For the Love of Film Blogathon to raise the money so that anyone with access to a computer can watch this amazing early film.

I hope you’ll read the great posts from fellow scribes and that you’ll make a donation.

‘Notorious’ is the film noir equivalent of an icy flute of Veuve Clicquot

1946/RKO, Vanguard Films/101 min.

“Notorious” ranks as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films and Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman is one of the most contemporary of all ’40s noir heroines. In this splendid 1946 suspense thriller, Bergman’s Alicia is a U.S. secret agent assigned to infiltrate a group of Nazis who have resurfaced in South America after WW2. Alicia risks her life to root out the Nazis’ source of uranium, an ingredient in atomic bombs. She also likes to throw parties, expose her midriff (love the sequin zebra-print top) and pursue her man, fellow secret agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant). Dev’s easy on the eyes, but he’s suspicious, uptight and seemingly unfeeling.

The Production Code stipulated that a kiss could not last more than three seconds.

Their “strange love affair” as she calls it, tinged with cynicism and mistrust, is decades ahead of its time. And their record-breakingly long kisses, which look tame now, were considered extremely racy in 1946.

The Production Code (ie, censors) stipulated that a kiss could not last more than three seconds. Hitchcock obeyed, but followed Bergman and Grant’s first swift kiss with another and another and another. Most importantly, she kisses him, noting that he hasn’t said, “I love you.”

The demands of their work (spying and info gathering) create pressure. Alicia must charm Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a wealthy, suave and impeccably dressed Nazi. Even though Alex is a high-ranking fascist, we never see him hatching his evil plans, so it’s a bit easier for the audience to put his heinousness on the back burner. Alex dotes on Alicia and is far more emotionally available than the shut-down Dev.

Claude Rains

Leopoldine Konstantin

Before long, Alex proposes to Alicia and gives her quite the rock to seal the deal. Alicia accepts after getting the OK from her unsympathetic and cold boss, Captain Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern).

Living with Alex will let Alicia poke around his stately home, where Prescott reckons trouble is literally brewing, and bring her into frequent contact with baddies like ringleader Eric Mathis (Ivan Triesault), scientific mastermind “Dr. Anderson” (Reinhold Schünzel) and weak link, Emil Hupka (Eberhard Krumschmidt).

Living with Alex also means dealing with the other Mrs. Sebastian, Alex’s mother. Czech-born actress Leopoldine Konstantin, in her only American film, plays the hard and imperious Mrs. Anna Sebastian. When Alex asks Anna to be friendly to Alicia, the battle-ax tartly replies: “Wouldn’t it be a bit much for both of us to be grinning at her like idiots?”

Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) and Dev (Cary Grant) are secret agents assigned to infiltrate a group of Nazis in South America after WW2.

Declaring a shortage of closet space (that’s our girl!), Alicia explores the nooks and crannies of the Sebastian mansion, but finds the wine cellar is off-limits. So, she decides to throw a champagne reception and steal the cellar key from her husband.

She invites Devlin, natch, and the two discover that wine is not the only thing stored in the cellar. (Hitchcock makes his cameo at the shindig, swigging some bubbly.)

Alex realizes the key has been stolen and that his secret is no longer safe, at which point he seeks maternal support. Anna’s fresh out of that, telling him: “We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity, for a time.”

The uranium angle is merely a MacGuffin, Hitchcock argot for a narrative device to advance the plot. The real story is whether Devlin and Alicia can work through their issues, such as his hypocrisy and lack of emotion, her drinking and their mutual game playing, which gets downright cruel. “Our all-too-human capacity for inhumanity is the dark mystery at the heart of ‘Notorious,’ ” writes film scholar William Rothman in his liner notes for the Criterion DVD edition. “And yet, in ‘Notorious,’ the possibility remains alive that the miracle of love can save us from our own perversity.”

This is one of the most beautiful films Hitch ever made, from his gorgeous leads to ravishing cinematography from Ted Tetzlaff – the closeups of Dev and Alicia at the racetrack and the famous crane shot at the mansion before Alicia’s champagne reception are standouts. I also like the imposing silhouettes of Alex and his mother after Alicia susses that they’ve been spiking her coffee. The lighting is magnificent throughout. Using rear-projection, Hitchcock combined footage of the principals filmed on a set with background shots taken in Rio.

The movie clocks in at 102 minutes but it glides by so gracefully that it feels half an hour. Ben Hecht’s sparkling script went through revisions and rewrites with input from Clifford Odets and Hitchcock. (David O. Selznick, on board as producer until he sold his rights to RKO in order to raise cash for another flick, likely tossed ideas around as well. Selznick had eyed Vivien Leigh for the Alicia role.) A few elements of “Notorious” came from a short story by John Taintor Foote called “The Song of the Dragon.”

“Ingrid was very fond of my parents,” recalls Pat Hitchcock O’Connell in her book “Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man.”

The entire cast dazzles and delights; the subtlety of the performances rewards multiple viewings. Hitch even accepted an idea from Bergman on shooting the dinner party scene.

In her book “Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man,” the daughter of Alma and Alfred, Pat Hitchcock O’Connell, recalls that: “Ingrid was very fond of my parents. I remember, she’d finish one film with Daddy and she’d come over, sit on the couch, and say, ‘When do we start the next one?’ ” (Hitchcock O’Connell’s tribute to her mother makes a fun, chatty read and includes some of Alma’s favorite recipes and menus for home entertaining.)

In 1945, Bergman and Hitchcock made “Spellbound” co-starring Gregory Peck and in 1949 Hitch directed her in “Under Capricorn” opposite Joseph Cotten. Also in ’49, Bergman went to Italy to film “Stromboli” with Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Director and star fell in love, and Bergman left her husband Petter Lindstrom for Rossellini. Because of the scandal, Bergman’s reputation in the U.S. suffered, then rebounded; over the course of her career, she earned three Oscars (two for best actress and one for best supporting actress).

One of the most enjoyable and sophisticated films of the black and white era, “Notorious” strikes me as the film noir equivalent of an icy flute of Veuve Clicquot. Cheers!

MGM recently released “Notorious” along with “Rebecca” (1940) and “Spellbound” (1945) on Blu-ray.

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‘Notorious’: noir equivalent of an icy flute of Veuve Clicquot

Notorious/1946/RKO, Vanguard Films/101 min.

“Notorious” ranks as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films and Ingrid Bergman as Alicia Huberman is one of the most contemporary of all ’40s noir heroines. In this splendid 1946 suspense thriller, Bergman’s Alicia is a U.S. secret agent assigned to infiltrate a group of Nazis who have resurfaced in South America after WW2. Alicia risks her life to root out the Nazis’ source of uranium, an ingredient in atomic bombs. She also likes to throw parties, expose her midriff (love the sequin zebra-print top) and pursue her man, fellow secret agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant). Dev’s easy on the eyes, but he’s suspicious, uptight and seemingly unfeeling.

The Production Code stipulated that a kiss could not last more than three seconds.

Their “strange love affair” as she calls it, tinged with cynicism and mistrust, is decades ahead of its time. And their record-breakingly long kisses, which look tame now, were considered extremely racy in 1946.

The Production Code (ie, censors) stipulated that a kiss could not last more than three seconds. Hitchcock obeyed, but followed Bergman and Grant’s first swift kiss with another and another and another. Most importantly, she kisses him, noting that he hasn’t said, “I love you.”

The demands of their work (spying and info gathering) create pressure. Alicia must charm Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a wealthy, suave and impeccably dressed Nazi. Even though Alex is a high-ranking fascist, we never see him hatching his evil plans, so it’s a bit easier for the audience to put his heinousness on the back burner. Alex dotes on Alicia and is far more emotionally available than the shut-down Dev.

Claude Rains

Leopoldine Konstantin

Before long, Alex proposes to Alicia and gives her quite the rock to seal the deal. Alicia accepts after getting the OK from her unsympathetic and cold boss, Captain Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern).

Living with Alex will let Alicia poke around his stately home, where Prescott reckons trouble is literally brewing, and bring her into frequent contact with baddies like ringleader Eric Mathis (Ivan Triesault), scientific mastermind “Dr. Anderson” (Reinhold Schünzel) and weak link, Emil Hupka (Eberhard Krumschmidt).

Living with Alex also means dealing with the other Mrs. Sebastian, Alex’s mother. Czech-born actress Leopoldine Konstantin, in her only American film, plays the hard and imperious Mrs. Anna Sebastian. When Alex asks Anna to be friendly to Alicia, the battle-ax tartly replies: “Wouldn’t it be a bit much for both of us to be grinning at her like idiots?”

Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) and Dev (Cary Grant) are secret agents assigned to infiltrate a group of Nazis in South America after WW2.

Declaring a shortage of closet space (that’s our girl!), Alicia explores the nooks and crannies of the Sebastian mansion, but finds the wine cellar is off-limits. So, she decides to throw a champagne reception and steal the cellar key from her husband.

She invites Devlin, natch, and the two discover that wine is not the only thing stored in the cellar. (Hitchcock makes his cameo at the shindig, swigging some bubbly.)

Alex realizes the key has been stolen and that his secret is no longer safe, at which point he seeks maternal support. Anna’s fresh out of that, telling him: “We are protected by the enormity of your stupidity, for a time.”

The uranium angle is merely a MacGuffin, Hitchcock argot for a narrative device to advance the plot. The real story is whether Devlin and Alicia can work through their issues, such as his hypocrisy and lack of emotion, her drinking and their mutual game playing, which gets downright cruel. “Our all-too-human capacity for inhumanity is the dark mystery at the heart of ‘Notorious,’ ” writes film scholar William Rothman in his liner notes for the Criterion DVD edition. “And yet, in ‘Notorious,’ the possibility remains alive that the miracle of love can save us from our own perversity.”

This is one of the most beautiful films Hitch ever made, from his gorgeous leads to ravishing cinematography from Ted Tetzlaff – the closeups of Dev and Alicia at the racetrack and the famous crane shot at the mansion before Alicia’s champagne reception are standouts. I also like the imposing silhouettes of Alex and his mother after Alicia susses that they’ve been spiking her coffee. The lighting is magnificent throughout. Using rear-projection, Hitchcock combined footage of the principals filmed on a set with background shots taken in Rio.

The movie clocks in at 102 minutes but it glides by so gracefully that it feels half an hour. Ben Hecht’s sparkling script went through revisions and rewrites with input from Clifford Odets and Hitchcock. (David O. Selznick, on board as producer until he sold his rights to RKO in order to raise cash for another flick, likely tossed ideas around as well. Selznick had eyed Vivien Leigh for the Alicia role.) A few elements of “Notorious” came from a short story by John Taintor Foote called “The Song of the Dragon.”

“Ingrid was very fond of my parents,” recalls Pat Hitchcock O’Connell in her book “Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man.”

The entire cast dazzles and delights; the subtlety of the performances rewards multiple viewings. Hitch even accepted an idea from Bergman on shooting the dinner party scene.

In her book “Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man,” the daughter of Alma and Alfred, Pat Hitchcock O’Connell, recalls that: “Ingrid was very fond of my parents. I remember, she’d finish one film with Daddy and she’d come over, sit on the couch, and say, ‘When do we start the next one?’ ” (Hitchcock O’Connell’s tribute to her mother makes a fun, chatty read and includes some of Alma’s favorite recipes and menus for home entertaining.)

In 1945, Bergman and Hitchcock made “Spellbound” co-starring Gregory Peck and in 1949 Hitch directed her in “Under Capricorn” opposite Joseph Cotten. Also in ’49, Bergman went to Italy to film “Stromboli” with Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Director and star fell in love, and Bergman left her husband Petter Lindstrom for Rossellini. Because of the scandal, Bergman’s reputation in the U.S. suffered, then rebounded; over the course of her career, she earned three Oscars (two for best actress and one for best supporting actress).

One of the most enjoyable and sophisticated films of the black and white era, “Notorious” strikes me as the film noir equivalent of an icy flute of Veuve Clicquot. Cheers!

MGM recently released “Notorious” along with “Rebecca” (1940) and “Spellbound” (1945) on Blu-ray.

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Does ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ need Noomi Rapace to survive?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo/2011/Columbia Pictures/158 min.

By Michael Wilmington

Noomi Rapace

When it comes to playing dark heroines with burning eyes, black jackets, multiple piercings and deadly temperaments, Rooney Mara is alas no Noomi Rapace. But the American actress (Rooney), who put down Jesse Eisenberg so effectively in “The Social Network,” proves surprisingly adept at putting down (and messing up) chauvinists and uncovering serial killers in Noomi’s old role of hacker/heroine Lisbeth Salander, in David Fincher’s remake of the Swedish sensation, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

It’s a very effective Hollywood movie as well, even if it’s one that, at least for “Dragon Tattoo” veterans, has few surprises. That’s because director Fincher (“The Social Network,” “Zodiac,” “Se7en”) and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) stay remarkably faithful to the original novels and the three hit Swedish movies made from the books.

Lisbeth of course is the astonishingly anti-social but utterly compelling heroine of the late Swedish journalist/novelist Stieg Larsson’s worldwide best-sellers: “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.”

Those novels, all published posthumously, follow the investigations of fictional journalist Mikael Blomkvist (a character many feel was modeled on Larsson) into the mysterious disappearance, 40 years earlier, of Harriet Vanger, beloved great-niece of Mikael’s employer, Henrik Vanger. The elite Vanger clan has many skeletons rattling around in their mansion closets.

In turn, Mikael (played in the original Swedish films by Michael Nyqvist and by Daniel Craig in Fincher’s film) hires the unorthodox Lisbeth as his researcher because of her incredible Internet skills. Soon the two are swimming in a whirlpool of family secrets, scandal and dread – a multi-plotted terror trap that Larsson kept up though all three of the novels.

Some critics have complained that Fincher and Zaillian haven’t changed the story enough. But it should be obvious by now that the vast audience for these stories doesn’t want them changed.

Hewing to the original as much as possible: That was super-producer David O. Selznick’s rule on adapting beloved best-sellers and classics to the screen, from “David Copperfield” to “Gone with the Wind” to “Rebecca.” And Selznick was usually right.

The more important things about the new “Dragon Tattoo” are that it’s been smartly and deftly adapted, extremely well cast, and beautifully and excitingly filmed. The movie has serious themes, a strong social/political dimension and engaging characters as well as an intricately assembled and finely crafted story that’s also pulpily lurid. Overall, it’s the sort of intelligent entertainment we don’t usually get from blockbusters.

Adding greatly to that intelligence, and to the entertainment value, is the new film’s excellent cast. In addition to Mara and Craig, there’s Robin Wright as Mikael’s editor-lover Erika (the original’s Lena Endre role), Christopher Plummer as Mikael’s employer, Henrik Vanger; the always-superb Stellan Skarsgard as genial Martin Vanger; Joely Richardson and Geraldine James as Vanger family members Anita and Cecilia; Steven Berkoff as the dour family attorney Dirch Frode; and Yorick Van Wageningen as Bjurman, Lisbeth’s amoral nemesis and subject of the trilogy’s most shocking and notorious scenes: the rape and anti-rape.

Why do murder mysteries and detective yarns, film noirs and neo noirs, still captivate audiences, usually the smarter audiences, so intensely? Perhaps it’s because the best of these stories imply that the world, in all its mysterious tangles, can be fathomed – that justice, in all its vagaries, is not as fragile as it sometimes seems, that life’s chaos and horrors can be straightened out or at least understood.

That’s the appeal of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” in all its forms: as addictive novels, as arty foreign films and now as a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a movie that doesn’t really need Noomi to survive, though it’s nice to know that she’s still around. And that Lisbeth still has her tattoo.

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A pre-fest chat with TCM’s Robert Osborne

TCM's Robert Osborne

Earlier today at a round-table interview, I caught up with TCM’s Robert Osborne, a veteran film historian and author, as the Classic Film Festival was setting up at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. Osborne said one of the festival’s strengths is its great mix in terms of programming, which sets it apart from today’s moviegoing where “you have a choice of the same movie 15 different ways.”

I’ve always wanted to talk noir with him, so I asked him why these films have such enduring appeal. “We’ve always had murder mysteries and who doesn’t love that? They have an endless appeal. It’s the shadows and lights and tough people like Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino.

Setting up inside the Roosevelt Hotel.

“To call ‘Leave Her to Heaven’ [a 1945 movie that played at last year’s fest and stars Gene Tierney] a noir is stretching it – ‘Leave Her to Heaven’ is a lush Technicolor movie about rich people.

“My idea of film noir is people in the gutter – tough dames and guys in trench coats up to no good. And nobody did it better than Hollywood in the ’40s.”

As for his favorite femmes fatales, he names Veronica Lake, Lauren Bacall (in the Bogart films), Marie Windsor and Jane Greer, describing them “as very feminine women that were also dames who could give it as well as they took it.”

The TCM fest has a great mix of movies.

And what did he think of remakes such as HBO’s version of “Mildred Pierce” by director Todd Haynes, starring Kate Winslet? Osborne praised Winslet’s performance but said he was disappointed. “They told the whole story too closely; it was too long and drawn out and too ponderous. In the original [Michael Curtiz‘s 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford], writer Ranald MacDougall’s addition of the murder really made the whole thing crackle. [The remake] should’ve been three hours at the most. I’m not fond of remakes generally.”

What is he most looking forward to in this year’s fest? “Night Flight” by Clarence Brown, “The Constant Nymph” by Edmund Goulding, opening night’s “An American in Paris” by Vincent Minnelli, Leslie Caron’s special appearance, and meeting Peter O’Toole.

I also asked Osborne, who got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2006, if he had any advice for O’Toole who will be honored at a hand and footprint ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre this Saturday. “Behave!”

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‘The Third Man’ delivers stellar suspense, performances both haunting and dazzling

TCM’s Classic Film Festival starts tomorrow and I’m fretting about packing in all the viewing and events. Definite draws are the classic noirs “The Third Man,” which screens at 9 a.m. Saturday; Henry Hathaway’s “Niagara” from 1953, starring Marilyn Monroe, screening at 6:15 p.m. on Saturday; and “Gaslight” (George Cukor, 1944) showing at 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Other must-sees: Marlene Dietrich in “The Devil is a Woman” (Josef von Sternberg, 1935) at 10:15 p.m. Friday and “Citizen Kane” (Orson Welles, 1941) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.

The Third Man/1949/(104 min. UK, 93 min. US)

Alida Valli and Joseph Cotten

If a city could be a femme fatale, it might be Vienna in “The Third Man” from 1949. The voiceover at the beginning of the film refers to “old Vienna with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm.” But new Vienna, a war-torn metropolis split into four Allied zones after World War Two, is a city living by its wits, host to a thriving black market. Hey, a girl’s gotta make a living somehow.

The voiceover also introduces us to a slightly naïve and completely broke newcomer to the hallowed city: Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American writer of pulpy Western novels, who has come to visit his old friend and fellow Yank Harry Lime (Orson Welles), a sly operator.

Instead of a buddy reunion, though, Martins ends up at his friend’s funeral: Turns out Harry was hit by a car and has died. Also at the burial is the distinguished Major Calloway (Trevor Howard), who suggests they get a drink.

As they sip, Martins starts asking questions about Lime’s death and eventually suspects foul play. So, Martins hunts for more info and, along the way, he meets a handful of vaguely nefarious characters who traveled in Lime’s orbit: his porter (Paul Hoerbiger), “Baron” Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), the Romanian known as Popescu (Siegfried Breuer), Dr. Winkel (Erich Ponto). One source he particularly likes is Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), a sultry, cynical Czechoslovakian actress, who was also Lime’s lover.

What troubles Martins is learning that there were three men who carried Harry’s body from the street after he died, but he can only find two. Finding the mysterious third man drives the action, ultimately leading to a chilling chase through the dank sewers of underground Vienna.

Director/producer Carol Reed, working from a Graham Greene novel, draws us into a perfectly rendered world where tension and trouble pulse just beneath the surface, where anxiety and disillusion are tempered with fleeting pleasures and faded love. I love the details of everyday Viennese life: a moonfaced boy, an ancient balloon seller, a haggard landlady, a prowling cat and the forlorn-looking Teddy bears of the children’s hospital. The lecture hall scene reminds me of a similar passage in Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” from 1935. [Read more…]

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TCM/Warner Home Video set highlights blonde bombshell Jean Harlow’s sharp, saucy screen persona

By Michael Wilmington

Jean Harlow may have been the first of the movie blonde bombshells, but her sharp, saucy screen persona was quite a ways removed from that of her sublime successor, Marilyn Monroe.
 

Marilyn Monroe often seemed like a girl in a woman's body.

Brassier and earthier than Monroe, Harlow was a bouncy sexpot who knew what she wanted and knew how to get it: a streetwise babe who lived in the real world and knew just how to manipulate it to her advantage. Harlow, like Monroe, had a baby-talk mode, but it was more clearly a put-on. Harlow’s juvenile antics, her “Daddy’s girl” banter with sugar daddies like beefy Wallace Beery let the audience firmly in on the joke.

Marilyn, or at least her screen persona, often seemed more like a little girl in a woman’s body, a blonde baby doll who never quite grew up, and often lived in a world all her own. Marilyn on screen, in some ways, is always a fantasy. Harlow on screen is usually real. Very real.

In the new TCM/Warner Home Video “Greatest Classics Legends: Jean Harlow” set, Harlow holds her own with the elite of MGM’s acting royalty — with the Barrymores (John and Lionel), and with Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Rosalind Russell, and classy supporting players like Billie Burke, May Robson and C. Aubrey Smith, and even with the young James Stewart.

Holds her own? She’s a star, even in a roomful of stars. This Jean Harlow set includes the following four films.

Jean Harlow holds her own among Hollywood royalty.

“Dinner at Eight” (George Cukor, 1933) An MGM all-star special and in some ways, a better movie than the studio’s talent-studded “Grand Hotel” — wittier, more knowing, with a deeper, stronger cast, and more beautifully directed, by Cukor. David O. Selznick was the producer, and the source was the hit Broadway play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, with the screenplay and additional dialogue from Herman Mankiewicz, Donald Ogden Stewart and Frances Marion.
 
The play is classic. The script is brilliant. The direction and production are impeccable. The stellar cast, one of the all-time great Hollywood ensembles, includes Lionel Barrymore as the beleaguered shipbuilder Oliver Jordan and Billie Burke as his fluttery society wife, who’s holding a dinner (at eight) for British aristocrats Lord and Lady Ferncliffe.

On her guest list: Old-time diva actress Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler); washed-up alcoholic Hollywood actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore, in an astounding piece of self-revelation and a classic of the actor‘s art), who’s romancing their twentyish daughter Paula (Madge Evans); voracious business shark Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) and his feisty platinum-blonde trophy wife Kitty (Harlow, in one of her best roles); smooth society doctor (and Kitty’s lover) Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe) and his tolerant wife (Karen Morley); and Paula’s hapless society beau (Phillips Holmes).

I’ve often thought that playwright Garson Kanin may have gotten the idea for “Born Yesterday” while watching Beery and Harlow in this film. In fact, she’s great with all her co-stars. A classic Harlow-Dressler moment is this exchange:

In the last scene, as they stroll in for dinner, Harlow muses, in a thoughtfully brassy way, “I was reading a book yesterday …”

Dressler: “Reading a book?”

Harlow: “Yes, it’s all about civilization or something, a nutty kind of a book. You know, the guy said that machinery is going to take the place of every profession! ”

Dressler, as she takes Harlow’s arm: “Oh, my dear, that’s something you need never worry about!”

It couldn’t be bettered. And neither could the movie, which, in some ways, is less another “Grand Hotel,” and more in the line of Jean Renoir’s great ensemble comedy-drama “The Rules of the Game.” Not as good, of course. Nothing is. [Read more…]

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‘Strangers on a Train’ brings out the bad in the best of us

Farley Granger and Robert Walker

Strangers on a Train/1951/Warner Bros. Pictures/101 min.

A friend of mine once went on a second date with a guy who showed up wearing saddle shoes. Let’s just say there wasn’t a third date. If only he’d seen 1951’s “Strangers on a Train.”  Alfred Hitchcock understood the importance of footwear and it shows in this stellar film.

He starts the story by contrasting the shiny, two-toned spats of Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) with the sensible black dress shoes of Guy Haines (Farley Granger) as each emerges from a Diamond cab. We follow these parallel footsteps as they board the same train, hence the title.

These brief shots contain the crux of the film: Model citizens often hide hard-core badness and the most unsavory renegades and reprobates can surprise you with a virtue or two (especially if we count charm and fashion sense as virtues).

Marion Lorne

Despite their differences, Bruno and Guy both have monkeys on their backs. Bruno is a spiffy playboy with psychopathic tendencies. Besides drinking and gambling, he spends his time hatching schemes for space travel and blowing up the White House. Even though Bruno has his wealthy and wacky mother (Marion Lorne) wrapped around his little finger, his father (Jonathan Hale) isn’t so flexible. In fact, he keeps threatening to have Bruno “taken care of, if necessary, put under restraint.”

Guy is a pro tennis player who wants to marry his dream girl Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), daughter of Senator Morton (Leo G. Carroll). Hitch’s daughter Patricia plays Anne’s little sister, Barbara. Unluckily for Guy, he’s already married to venal and unfaithful Miriam (Kasey Rogers, credited as Laura Elliott).

So, during their train trip, Bruno strikes up a conversation with Guy, telling him: “I certainly admire people who do things.” Over drinks, smokes and a lamb-chop lunch, Bruno proposes a daring, if absurd, solution to both of their glitches: If Bruno murders Miriam, that would leave Guy free to marry Anne. In exchange, Guy would bump off Mr. Anthony. Guy laughs it off, but Bruno takes it as mutual pledge and proceeds to carry out his part of the deal, trailing Miriam to a carnival and murdering her.

When he hears the news, Guy’s shocked, but if he tells the police, Bruno will claim that Guy was an accomplice. Besides, he had motive. As the police investigate, Bruno pressures Guy to fulfill his part of the plan.

Guy resists, but Bruno won’t back down and turns into a bit of a stalker. Bruno also has an ace in the hole: he nabbed Guy’s engraved cigarette lighter when Guy left it behind after their lunch on the train. Guy may lack Bruno’s warped brilliance but he pushes back when cornered and he’s determined to set things right.

If you don’t love “Strangers on the Train,” I’ll be shocked. It’s a gloriously suspenseful story, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel. Raymond Chandler wrote the screenplay, but most of that was trashed and rewritten by Czenzi Ormonde, with uncredited help from Ben Hecht. (Whitfield Cook adapted.) Hitch and Chandler apparently had a hate/hate relationship. [Read more…]

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