Cocky Hitch

FEBRUARY IS HITCHCOCK MONTH

One of the great mysteries of cinema revolves around arguably its greatest master of the suspense genre, Alfred Hitchcock.

Long before Rebecca, or even The 39 Steps, Hitch was a name to reckon with. By the time his works were revered in the United States, when all the Hollywood moguls were champing at the bit to sign him, the artist already had a long, acclaimed career in Britain; his 1926 version of The Lodger was the first effort to associate him with the spine-tingling chillers he would become renowned for. And his 1929 production of Blackmail was selected to be the UK’s first all-talking picture.

But the silents and very early talkies were problematic, to say the least. They were expertly made thrillers and bizarre comedies; however, the pre-1929 output, while available (unlike many lost works of silent cinema), were only remnants of what once was. In short, they were in horrendous shape, the silents often so washed-out and dupey that images, when discernible, looked like B-movie sci-fi victims of radioactivity. The sound offerings were worse; in addition to the lousy visuals, they had soundtracks consisting of hiss and crackle with only occasional samples of human speech barely audible.

What’s unconscionable is why it took so long for the British film industry to begin restorations of these seminal works (it only began fairly recently). Well, not one to carp, the results are 35MM extraordinary, and we have both the StudioCanal and (now) Kino Classics to thank for finally bringing these stunning gems of cinema to the public and (now) to American Blu-Ray, via the spectacular HITCHCOCK: BRITISH INTERNATIONAL PICTURES COLLECTION, a quintessential two-disc set for every Hitchcock fan (and film history aficionado).

Housed in a handsome slipcover, featuring a striking early profile portrait of the director, HITCHCOCK features all new scores for the quartet of silents (THE RING, THE FARMER’S WIFE, CHAMPAGNE, THE MANXMAN) and a beautifully cleaned up audio track for the 1931 talkie THE SKIN GAME. To say “throw your old DVDs away” is an understatement (most of mine were tossed a quarter way through their initial viewings). In short, there should be no end to the accolades for all those involved in bringing these pics to light in the versions they deserve.

1927’s THE RING has always been one of my favorite silent Hitchcocks. The allegorical title (the main character’s profession – a boxer – and his engagement to the woman of his dreams) is merely the wrap-a-round for this clever drama. It pretty much embryonically cements the director’s obsession with…obsession. The narrative offers us a lethal human equation between One-Round Jack Sander, the boxer, his infatuation/love/suspicion/jealousy/vengeance over Mabel, and her involvement with Corby, a competitor in many ways. It’s a high-tension psychological drama, literally with a punch. It’s also a marvelous adult foray into voyeurism, a Hitchcockian specialty with visual sequences that prefigure Rear Window and Psycho (not surprising, since the scenario was scripted by the director and his number one associate, wife Alma Reville). Of course, the images are already miles beyond the typical 1927 UK fare, thanks to Hitch’s collaboration with d.p. Jack Cox (the underrated cinematographer of all five pics in this collection). The performances are excellent, and feature Danish ex-pat Carl Brisson, Lillian Hall-Davis, Ian Hunter, Forrester Harvey, Gordon Harker, Tom Helmore (nearly thirty years before Vertigo), and Clare Greet. A new music score has been especially composed for this Blu-Ray by Meg Morley, which additionally features an audio commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton.

1928’s THE FARMER’S WIFE is atypical Hitchcock, as it’s a romantic comedy (of sorts); yet, there are enough of the director’s astute observations of the macabre eccentricities of human behavior to make it undeniably identifiable as one of his works.

Farmer Sweetland is a lonely widower, living on his lavish farm with Araminta, his faithful, attractive housekeeper. Deciding he wants a woman because (for one reason) they “smell like Sunday dinner,” he instructs Minta to help him compile a list of available femmes. The “hook-ups” are, to say they least, amusing – if not frightening, and his rejection assessments are often hilarious (Too independent, too set in her ways, flighty, dowdy and uncouth, she thinks I’m an old man!).

The script adaptation of Eden Phillpotts’ play by Eliot Stannard (with uncredited assist from Hitchcock, J.E. Hunter, Norman Lee, and Leslie Arliss) is (as one can discern from the above) chock full of witty titles, although the obvious is there from the start: Minta is going to end up with Sweetland. But, as they so often say, getting there is half the fun; here, it’s all the fun.

For years, I sloughed off THE FARMER’S WIFE as a minor, overlong (129 minutes), unimportant effort – a contract assignment of little worth. As I frequently state, I was wrong. The prints I had seen were virtually unviewable – so many generations away from the original material. Seeing this movie in a stunning 35MM 1080p transfer adds what was missing for decades: the lovely charm of the gorgeous rural Wales location filming, as sumptuously rendered by Jack Cox. I can now appreciate the excellent performances of Jameson Thomas (Sweetland), Lillian Hall-Davis (Minta), plus Maud Gill, Louie Pounds, Olga Slade, Ruth Maitland and Antonia Brough, while enjoying a new score by Jon Mirsalis. Okay, THE FARMER’S WIFE is not Notorious, or even The Trouble with Harry, but it’s definitely a Hitch curio worth more than one peek.

1928’s CHAMPAGNE is another unusual project assigned to then-rising director Hitchcock. It was a star vehicle for Betty Balfour, then heralded as the British Pickford. The pic is a romcom – what would in six years be categorized as a “screwball comedy” following a wacky heiress and her beau aboard a transatlantic ocean voyage to escape her wily dad. When news comes that he has gone bankrupt due to a market crash (prophetically, a year before Black Tuesday), daughter is forced to degrade herself in a most heinous way – find a job and work! Balfour soon discovers that her gig as a toothpaste model bites the dust, as the ogling male execs are only out to hit on her and rhapsodize about the lady’s legs.

Unconventional Hitch, to be sure – but, again, so glad it survives and has been restored. The cast supporting Balfour is gung-ho, and includes Jean Bradin, Ferdinand von Alten, Gordon Harker, Alexander D’Arcy. Vivian Gibson, and Jack Trevor; the tech credits are decent as well (set design by future director Michael Powell, a scenario by Hitch and Eliot Stannard from a story by Walter C. Mycroft). A dubious honor, Hitchcock deemed CHAMPAGNE as the worst picture he ever made. Of course, that’s up to the viewer, but, one must always bear in mind that second or even third rate Hitchcock is better than anything else. That said, the movie utilized the first recorded freeze frame, and contains a running gag that even Mr. Hitchcock admitted was diverting: a shipboard drunk periodically staggering across the deck, except during a rough seas sequence where he walks perfectly straight.

Ben Model provides a new music score, plus there’s audio commentary by film historian Farran Smith Nehme.

Today hailed by many as Hitchcock’s finest silent work, 1929’s THE MANXMAN, based upon a scandalous novel by Hall Caine (adapted by Eliot Stannard), carries many themes (obsession, forbidden love, the back-from-the-dead variant) that would later define Vertigo (in case I’ve never mentioned it before, my candidate for the greatest movie of all-time).

Taking place on the Isle of Man (hauntingly visualized by d.p. Cox), the narrative revolves around poor fisherman Peter, his lawyer pal Philip and their love for Kate, a beautiful, young local. Philip becomes a hero to the community when he argues a case for fishing rights, and hopes that he can soon reveal his secret adoration for the desirable woman he craves. Peter, on the other hand, hides nothing and boorishly announces his love/lust for the lass. Kate teases the fisherman, finding his unsophisticated braggadocio behavior comically entertaining. When Peter proposes, both Philip and Kate are relieved when the girl’s father intercedes, claiming that he’s too impoverished to support his daughter. Peter vows to ship out and make a fortune if Kate will marry him upon his return. Kate halfheartedly agrees, thinking him a fool.

While gone, Philip begins visiting Kate in a strictly platonic way, as he can’t NOT be near her (“Look after her,” Peter carelessly tells his pal, a red light/green light if ever there was one). After what seems an eternity, the sad news arrives that Peter is dead. A explosion of mutual passion consumes Philip and Kate, as both admit that they harbor feelings for one another (the before-and-after death is revealed by a pair of stunning titles: “I’ve promised myself to him, but I’ve given myself to you!” and “Philip – we’re FREE!”).

Philip and Kate embark on a euphoric physical relationship when the real sad news hits home: Peter is not dead, has made a lot of money, and is coming home to marry his beloved.

The dark intertwining marriage and “friendships” become intense to the point of ruination (not helped by the fact that Kate is now pregnant by Philip). It’s a no way out situation (Philip won’t run off with Kate while Peter is in their lives; Kate attempts suicide – a crime on the Isle of Man; Peter is traumatized by the truth).

Certainly not a cheery piece, THE MANXMAN is nevertheless an adult look at worst-case-scenario romance.

The performances are, as expected, quite good with Carl Brisson as Peter, Anny Ondra as Kate, and Malcoln Keen as Philip…with excellent support from Randie Ayrton, Clare Greet, Kim Peacock, and Nellie Richards. An excellent score composed for this release by Andrew Earle Simpson underlines the pic’s tech and thesp artistic endeavors.

Surprisingly, Hitchcock wasn’t overly fond of the movie, citing its prime importance being that it was his last silent picture. I, along with scores of critics/fans worldwide, tend to disagree.

1931’s THE SKIN GAME is the one talkie included in this collection. While, like CHAMPAGNE and THE FARMER’S WIFE, it isn’t exactly what one would consider a “Hitchcock picture,” it does have several points worth mentioning. As indicated above, by the advent of sound, Hitchcock was considered cinema royalty – enough to be given the UK’s first talkie assignment (the aforementioned 1929 Blackmail). THE SKIN GAME was an important project – just the stuff sound was (seemingly) meant for; it was based on a play by John Galsworthy. Hitchcock didn’t want to do the movie version, but relented and actually prepared the adaptation with Alma Reville. The narrative has some sharp, satiric points that are warrant discussion. The pic chronicles the battles between two affluent families: The Hillcrists and The Hornblowers. The former have been wealthy landowners for generations; the nouveau riche Hornblowers are recent arrivals – a working class background with otherwise no class at all. Or, at least not on the surface. The main altercation is over a piece of land that each patriarch desires. What they don’t count on is the Romeo and Juliet romance of two of their children. The fact that none care for the regular workers – exposing them to the “progress” of pollution is a particularly hard pill to swallow, especially these days. The nastiness of Mrs. Hillcrist, who uncovers an unsavory past about the now-thoroughly decent Chloe Hornblower brings the fight to a new low.

Shot with four cameras (dubbing and sound editing was still in its infancy) prevents the movie from becoming a stodgy filmed stage play like so many other early talkers. To this, we must credit the director and his able staff – key, of course, being the ubiquitous Jack Cox. The cast is quite up to snuff as well, and includes a rather grungy Edmund Gwenn, plus Jill Esmond, Helen Haye, C.V. France, John Longden, Frank Lawton, and especially Phyllis Konstam (as Chloe).

THE SKIN GAME is quite entertaining in its way, now more than ever. The only other copy I had ever seen was irreparably bleached out, rendering it unwatchable; the audio was worse – bacon frying, and indecipherable. Can’t commend Kino and StudioCanal enough. This looks great in 35MM quality with a nice, strong and CLEAR soundtrack.

An absolute necessity for silent movie buffs and Hitchcock addicts, HITCHCOCK: BRITISH INTERNATIONAL COLLECTION deserves a space in every classic cinema library.

HITCHCOCK: BRITISH INTERNATIONAL COLLECTION. Black and white; Full Frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino Classics/StudioCanal. CAT # K24075. SRP: $49.95.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

FEBRUARY IS HITCHCOCK MONTH

On January 14, 1953, Queens resident, loving family man, and musician Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero was returning home after a typical late night shift at The Stork Club. It was the beginning of a series of horrific true-life occurrences that forever destroyed his world – as well as a plethora of U.S. citizens’ belief in the American justice system. In stark documentary fashion, Balestrero’s story is brilliantly presented in 1957’s THE WRONG MAN, one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most unusual motion pictures. Yet, this scathing indictment of a police investigation would have shocked Hitchcock’s fans even more had he NOT been drawn to it, as the director’s fear/distrust of law enforcement officials is one of his most well-known bugaboos.

Balestrero was arrested after being positively identified as the man who committed a series of violent robberies in his Jackson Heights hood. A deeply religious man, Manny, as those close to him called him, did everything that was asked by police that might help clear his name. That said, no one bothered to question why an alleged robber would give a loan company (he had already victimized) his personal information when attempting to borrow on a life insurance policy for his wife’s upcoming dental surgery.

Manny and Rose, his dutiful spouse, their two children and his parents and in-laws vouch wholeheartedly for the never-arrested-for-anything cellist. But circumstantial evidence keeps piling up, and surefire witnesses (he was on a summer vacation when one of the robberies occurred) have either disappeared or died. But there’s worse trouble ahead. An attorney determined to exonerate Balestrero is the first to notice that Rose is not able to properly cope with the undeniable terrible events. Rose Balestrero, indeed, becomes immersed in a sea of depression, and quietly goes insane – eventually requiring incarceration in a sanitarium. To top it off, when a disgruntled juror shouts out “Your honor, do we have to sit here and listen to this!?,” a mistrial is declared and Manny must endure the humiliation and degradation for a second time.

Balestrero’s mom puts all her resolve into faith, which begins the remarkable final act to this chilling drama (and one of the great lap dissolves in cinema history), truly one of Hitchcock’s most terrifying movies (the nonchalant disbelief of Manny’s innocence by his accusers, the nasty treatment by detectives, and, finally, the booking and lock-up sequences – realistically captured by Robert Burks’ spinning camera, which allows the viewers to assimilate Balestrero’s own crumbling mental state culminating in a dizzying, near physical collapse).

The cast is perfect, giving star Henry Fonda one of his best roles (no doubt he was convinced to take the part by pal Jimmy Stewart who could never stop raving about Hitchcock). Vera Miles, then under personal contract to Hitch, too, gives one of her finest portrayals as Rose. It’s a testament to her acting abilities and the sensitive script and dialog by Maxwell Anderson (one of his last works) and Hitchcock veteran Angus McPhail (from a screen story by Anderson), an accurate depiction of the then-rarely discussed topic of depression/PTSD. Other extraordinary cast members include Anthony Quayle as Frank O’Connor, the attorney who took Manny’s case, and a slew of great New York thesps, including Harold J. Stone, Charles Cooper, Nehemiah Persoff, Esther Minciotti (and, aptly, her husband Silvio as Manny’s parents), Dan Terranova, Charles Aidman, Henry Beckman, Donald May, Barney Martin, John Vivyan, and Doreen Lang (a freaked out victim who would be equally frenzied as the panicked mom in The Birds), Werner Klemperer, William Hudson, and an early appearance by Harry Dean Stanton. Trivia buffs might want to take a closer look at the two giggly little girls who answer the door while the Balestreros are seeking out witnesses; they are Bonnie Franklin and Tuesday Weld.

Aside from Burks’ already praised, gritty noirish monochrome photography, THE WRONG MAN is appended by a superb score by Bernard Herrmann, melding jazzy riffs (at the Stork Club) with pounding background music that offers an emotional tone to the seemingly hopeless situation (Herrmann also appears as the leader of The Stork Club’s combo; the nitery’s famed owner Sherman Billingsley likewise turns up to offer what ever assist he can to remedy Manny’s plight).

Hitch shot most of the movie in New York City, much of it in the actual locations where the story played out (it’s cool to see my Queens nabe in the Fifties). The prison where Manny is detained provides an additional perk for observant movie fans, now very accessible due to the excellent 1080p Warner Archive transfer. While being led to his cell, you can distinctly hear an inmate shouting “What’d they get you for, Henry?” No doubt when taken in context with the entire narrative, comprising botched identity, Hitch decided to leave it in – one of the few humorous concessions, however sardonic (even the director’s trademark cameo, although shot, was excised to accentuate the seriousness of the non-fiction play; instead, Hitchcock appears in a prologue, describing how the authentic drama mirrors many of his celebrated thrillers).

The movie received major critical kudos when unveiled before select cinemas in December of 1956 (the general release would be January 1957). Not surprisingly, box-office didn’t approach the recent hauls garnered from To Catch a Thief and The Man Who Knew Too Much; but, then again, it didn’t cost nowhere near that much to make. It is today considered (and rightfully so) one of Hitchcock’s most underrated classics. My BFF, writer/director Ric Menello was quite fond of this movie, and once christened it The Wrong Manny, a moniker which from then on was the only way we referred to it.

As indicated, the Warner Archive Blu-Ray is a revelation in its rendering of visual and audio High Definition detail. It is presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and offers a supplementary mini-documentary: Guilt Trip: Hitchcock and The Wrong Man, as well as the theatrical trailer.

The one false note is the tacked-on upbeat ending, possibly added after Hitchcock left the production, and, if not, likely forced under protest (the director considered the movie “indifferent,” never defended it, and filmed it – his last for the studio – without pay). Happy endings were a Jack Warner standard that often ruined otherwise great Warner movies. A title card tells us that “Two years later, Rose Balestreo walked out of the sanitarium – completely cured. Today she lives happily with Manny and the two boys…” Hitchcock has said that to his knowledge Rose Balestrero was still confined to a mental illness facility while the movie was in production. As he told Francois Truffaut a decade later in the French director’s landmark 1966 book Hitchcock/Truffaut, “She’s probably still there.”

THE WRONG MAN. Black and white [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Entertainment. CAT # B019HPJBY4. SRP: $17.99.

This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

Sea Salt

FEBRUARY IS HITCHCOCK MONTH

One of the Forties’ great WWII dramas (and a personal Hitchcock favorite of mine), 1944’s LIFEBOAT sets sail on Blu-Ray in a stunning 1080p High Definition transfer (loaded with extras), thanks to the crew at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.

Originating on the slim premise of the director’s musing “Who’s the LAST person you’d expect to see in a lifeboat?” The answer to himself immediately was “Tallulah Bankhead.” No less than John Steinbeck thought a mini-society cross-section of humanity cast adrift in wartime would make a swell movie, and took it a step further (and, at Fox, post-Grapes of Wrath, the acclaimed author could do no wrong). This, added to Hitch’s dream of making a feature length film in one enclosed environ (a pet project to which he would return again in Rope, Rear Window, and several of his TV productions), culminated with both men getting the double-green light from Darryl Zanuck; in fact, it got Hitchcock a two-picture Fox deal, after arrangements were made with David O. Selznick Productions, where the four-star director was under contract.

Bankhead plays famed journalist Constance Porter, and, as Hitchcock fantasized, we first see her drifting solo in a lifeboat, draped in jewels, wearing a mink – typewriter and 16MM movie camera at hand. After a grisly opening of floating debris (a poker card hand, a child’s toy, a copy of the New Yorker…), we learn without any dialog what has transpired. A German U-boat has breached the law of decency and torpedoed a ship carrying civilians (fortunately, we learn, the enemy vessel itself was bombed into oblivion by the armed target before sinking).

“Lady, you certainly don’t look like someone that’s just been shipwrecked” is the first line of dialog we hear as Porter helps the few other survivors aboard comprising crewmen John Kovac (John Hodiak), Gus Smith (William Bendix), and Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn), African-American steward Joe Spencer (Canada Lee), millionaire C.J. Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), healthcare volunteer Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), and Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel), a psychologically damaged mum (carrying her dead baby). Not realizing the full impact of what has happened carelessly causes the panicked seven war victims to neglect the deranged single parent, who slips over the side to a watery grave. Bickering (a la superbly, via snarky dialog by Jo Swerling, working from Steinbeck’s treatment of Hitchcock’s story) eventually levels off the social strata, not helped by revealing that Smith (formerly “Schmidt,” ashamed of his Teutonic roots) has a shrapnel-hit leg that is turning gangrene. Indeed, this society is a cluster of isms: eat the rich Kovac is a communist, money-bags Rittenhouse is a capitalist, the others are socialists and soon there is to be a fascist. Floating by is another survivor, Willie (Walter Slezak), a German from the ship that deep-sixed them (he turns out to be the worst kind of evil: a gregarious, helpful master racist, whom, we learn was the Captain who gave the order).

The Nazi’s superiority isn’t the only bigotry on-board, and it’s a plus to Swerling, Hitchcock, producers Bill Goetz, Kenneth Macgowan (and, of course, Zanuck) that some subtle stuff got by the censors. The aforementioned Canada Lee, the excellent Black actor of Cry the Beloved Country fame is, at first, called by his terrible nickname “Charcoal,” even by the liberal Constance. Worse, Rittenhouse refers to him as “George,” a masked slur toward Black men back then by rich people who couldn’t be bothered to know these Americans’ real names (it derived from the fact that many Black males were porters who worked the railroad cars designed by George Pullman). With great dignity, Lee informs Hull “my name is Joe.” And from then on, it is (Hitchcock was very sensitive about how the race situation would be handled, and told Lee he could go off script if he felt more comfortable with alternate dialog; in actuality, Lee did write his own lines. The Fox publicity department, however, wasn’t that liberal, and Lee’s image (aside from the Nazi’s) is the only major character not on the movie’s one-sheet).

Some eyebrow-raising events happen on the engrossing voyage, including an obvious sex scene between Porter and Kovac (she writes her name in lipstick on his bare chest, among his other female trophy tatt monikers); in fact, as Connie loses all her worldly possessions (the ones mentioned above), she becomes increasingly more attractive to hunky tough guy, whom she calls “Komrade.”

Aside from carnal (Bankhead, Hodiak) and sweet romance (Cronyn and Anderson), there are thrills galore and a harrowing sequence where the reluctant passengers must amputate Gus’s infected leg. More deaths, violence and top suspense ensues before the stirring and perfect climax (added at the last moment by an uncredited Ben Hecht when Hitchcock deemed the inevitable rescue pickup a let down).

The shoot proved nearly as perilous as the tale depicted in the narrative. True, it’s all on a single soundstage; nevertheless, that set was a giant specially-built tank floating in choppy waters with a constantly rocking boat churning through choking fake fog and mist (causing much nausea and illness for cast and crew, including pneumonia for Bankhead and two cracked ribs for Cronyn). It cost a fortune to construct, but Hitchcock didn’t want a phoney-looking ocean, yet needed to have ultimate control.

There were some humorous moments, too. As often is the case with strong personalities, many wags wondered how a Hitchcock and Bankhead working relationship would fare. Turns out, their mutual cynicism melded perfectly. It was Mary Anderson, of all people, who gave the director a headache, constantly shifting around looking for the most desirable angle from which to be photographed. “What’s my best side,” she continuously asked before Hitchcock lost it and snapped back “You’re sitting on it!”

Bankhead did cause a dilemma, but with the front office. Her refusal to wear underwear became quite evident in scenes in the lifeboat where she crossed and uncrossed her legs – almost fifty years before Sharon Stone. A memo was finally sent to Hitchcock demanding he do something about it. His terse, irreverent reply was a classic: “I don’t know if this is a matter for the costume department, make-up, or hair…” The situation became a perk during the early morning calls, as Bankhead’s climbing up the tank to swing over to the boat daily brought applause from the key crew and technicians.

One of the crazier things that happened during the filming was Bankhead’s virulent hatred of Nazism and everything it stood for. While on the surface, this seems perfectly fine, she took out her hostility on costar Slezak (I guess that’s sort of a backhanded or Bankheaded compliment). She spat out her venomous lines at him (again, a good thing), but toward the end of the shoot, when reports of sanguinary Nazi defeat reached the company, she mercilessly taunted him with the news:“I hope they spill every drop of German blood there is. I hate them all. And I HATE YOU!” Slezak, who was Jewish, and barely escaped with his family from Hitler & Co., could only soberly reply “I’m sorry about that, Tallulah.”

As early as 1944, the trademark Hitchcock cameo had already become a thing, and the director and staff were perplexed on how this could logically happen in LIFEBOAT. Most suggested that he float by, but Hitch was worried he’d sink. The inspired solution came via an old newspaper Bendix picks up from the bow of the vessel; there is an airbrushed before-and-after obesity cure-all featuring two Alfred Hitchcocks. For years afterward, the director was besieged by portly fans begging him where they could obtain the product.

LIFEBOAT was brilliantly shot by Glen MacWilliams (replacing Arthur C. Miller), a master cinematographer, whose career went back to the late teens. He had been a pal of Oliver Hardy, when the comedian was working as an a.d. MacWilliams left the U.S. in the 1932 to work in England. With the beginning of the Blitz in September 1940, he frantically wrote to Hardy, asking if there was anything he could do to help sponsor his homecoming. Since Laurel & Hardy had now signed with Fox (and really NEVER made any outrageous demands), Ollie’s request for MacWilliams as d.p. on their initial project for the studio, Great Guns, was approved. That’s how he returned to the States with his family. So we can thank Oliver Hardy for the look of LIFEBOAT (not a bad deal at all since the pic garnered MacWilliams an Oscar nomination). The slight music score (main and end credits) was ably composed by Hugo Friedhofer. The only other background sounds in the entire picture are “natural” ones: wind, waves, wooden boat creaks, etc. An authentic audio symphony that the director would refine with The Birds (wherein Bernard Herrmann orchestrated ornithological caws and shrieks).

LIFEBOAT seemed to be a winner all-around, and Hitchcock, Bankhead, and Fox thought they had a guaranteed smash. While the pic received superb reviews and did impressive business in the major American cities, it did scant box-office in the smaller rural venues. For what it eventually cost, LIFEBOAT, the movie shot in an extravagant tank…tanked (Hitchcock’s second Fox pic was canceled).

Bankhead loved the final result, and went on an aggressive one-woman campaign promoting herself for the Best Actress Oscar, which I believe she should have won. Considered a Hollywood outsider (she was totally snubbed, and not even nominated), she lost to Ingrid Bergman (ironically, soon to become an iconic Hitchcock thesp), who copped the award for Gaslight. Bankhead did, however, win The New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress, and, in her own inimitable style headlined her acceptance speech with “Dahling, I was wonderful!”

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of LIFEBOAT is tremendous, both in picture clarity and mono audio. There are some cool supplements as well, including separate audio commentaries by Tim Lucas and Drew Casper, a Hitchcock/Truffaut classic audio discussion segment on the movie, and a mini-documentary, The Making of Lifeboat.

To quote Margo Channing in All About Eve (another Fox classic, featuring a strong female lead), “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride!” And, yes, it’s a rough, stormy journey (physically and emotionally), but one well worth taking. And repeatedly.

LIFEBOAT. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. CAT # K20742. SRP: $29.95.

Curtains for Certains

FEBRUARY IS HITCHCOCK MONTH

Something I’ve been contemplating for a while at last comes to fruition: a month-long tribute to my candidate for the greatest director of all-time, Alfred Hitchcock.

Of course, I’m not the only one who feels this way – which is why I hemmed and hawed for so long. So much has already been written and said, so what can I possibly add? It was, however, the fairly recent major push by home vid companies to remaster-the-Master in 1080p High Definition that finally prompted me to throw all caution to the wind. While many of these movies have long been accessible in excellent transfers, some haven’t…and, wow, does it make a difference. Imagine seeing a “new” Hitchcock for the very first time! That’s what a handful of these Blu-Rays are like; therefore, here’s my pitch to inform readers of their availability. All are must-haves for any classic collection.

1950’s STAGE FRIGHT, based on the novel Man Running by Selwyn Jepson, was the second of two post-war movies Hitch had contracted to make back in his native England (the other being the unfairly belittled Under Capricorn); since 1948’s Rope, a deal had been made to release the (now) producer-director’s work through Warner Bros. After this pic (featuring the studio’s recent Oscar-winner Jane Wyman), Hitch would relocate back to the U.S. and proceed to turn out an additional four titles for Warners. All are excellent, a couple tackled new ground (Dial M for Murder in 3-D, The Wrong Man using a documentary approach), and one is a masterpiece (Strangers on a Train)

STAGE FRIGHT is usually considered lightweight, mostly due to the director himself shunning it as a misfire. Hate to disagree with Mr. Hitchcock, but, the movie has aged beautifully, and was NEVER a second-rater (the original reviews were generally positive, and the box-office was decent, albeit admittedly not fantastic).

The reason for the director’s thumbs-down was his take on the cliched cinematic device, the flashback – which had been irising in an out since the days of Pearl White. Always looking to be innovative, Hitch surmised “what if the flashback were a lie?” It’s a kinda brilliant tactic, since everyone wholeheartedly accepts this situation as gospel. Nevertheless the director felt that he cheated the audience. Maybe in any other kind of scenario, but here it’s perfect: the movie, as the title implies, is about make-believe, fakery, disguise, deception and out-and-out lying taking place in the acting profession. It’s also a thrilling murder mystery. Even the credits unfold over a curtain going up on London, the “set” for the play we’re about to see.

Eve Gill, a promising young actress (and daughter of delightful, divorced eccentrics) is besieged by her pal/fellow thesp student Jonathan Cooper. He needs a favor – to escape. Cooper has just helped his lover, famed entertainer/star Charlotte Inwood, cover up her murder of an abusive spouse.

Eve involves her eager dad (the wonderful Alastair Sim) to help, and even her wily (but clueless) mom (Sybil Thorndike). But that isn’t enough; Eve is determined to prove Jonathan’s innocence, and decides to fully hone her Gill-skill. Paying off a crusty maid, Eve goes undercover as the crone’s relative and takes over the duties as slave-assistant to the haughty murderess Inwood. Complications arise when she falls for the investigating detective (and vice versa). The narrative is beautifully constructed with memorable sequences, snarky dialog (courtesy of the terrific script by Whitfield Cook, as adapted by Alma Reville, with additional stinging sophisticated verbal snaps by James Bridie and Ranald MacDougall) and tip-top performances (Wyman as Eve, Marlene Dietrich as Charlotte, Richard Todd as Jonathan, Michael Wilding as the detective inspector, plus Miles Malleson, Kay Walsh, Hector MacGregor, Ballard Berkeley, Patricia Hitchcock, Alfie Bass, Irene Handl, Lionel Jeffries, and the always-appreciated Joyce Grenfell in an endearing cameo as “Lovely Ducks”). Aiding the literal lethal theatrics immensely is stunning cinematography by Willie Cooper and an almost prophetic score by Leighton Lucas (the main title theme being very Bernard Herrmann-esque, a full five years before the director and the composer collaborated to make more movie history). To pronounce the climax as breathtaking/scary is an understatement!

Hitch was never comfortable having to use talent pushed upon him, and was wary of Jane Wyman. His fears proved correct. While many thought that costar Marlene Dietrich might prove a problem (while Hitch never connected with her like Ingrid Bergman or Grace Kelly, he publicly acknowledged her professionalism and style), Wyman kept trying to sneak in some glamour to enhance her characterization. Complaining that she looked positively dowdy compared to Dietrich (who wouldn’t?), Hitch had to constantly remind her that that was the point, to cover her natural beauty, fool everyone and appear invisible. Can’t smite her, though, Wyman’s quite excellent in the pic (right down to the reference of her being brought up in the States, to mask her non-British accent). Dietrich, meantime, proves again why she’s queen of the hill. Any other actress insulting her likeable costars would be sounding the death knell; when Marlene does it, it’s a relished. anticipated plus (for example, after offering Eve a rare compliment, Charlotte gets a gushing, bonding response; the annoyed star replies with a non-eye-contact icy “Oh, dahling, don’t confide in me…I hope you’re not going to turn into one of those expwicit people who always tell you exactly how they feel when you ask them.” It’s epic!).

The new Blu-Ray of STAGE FRIGHT is a revelation. Earlier incarnations (laserdisc, DVD, TCM showings) had a lengthy moment during a crucial theater segment marred by a thick “barber pole” negative scratch going down one side of the frame. It’s now gone, making the entire copy of this 2022 transfer pristine (including a nice mono audio track). Extras include the trailer, and a “Making of” mini-documentary.

Encore for STAGE FRIGHT!

STAGE FRIGHT. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. CAT # B09MSRP23D SRP: $21.99.

This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.