Hitchcock’s Silent Classic “The Lodger” on the Radio

25 06 2010

Since I am about to leave for a few days, we’ve got a special report from a guest-blogger, the Midwest Foreign Correspondent to Hitchcock and Me, one Keating DuGarm, who looks at the radio adaptation of  a silent movie classic!

Take it away, Keating…

Alfred Hitchcock proved to have a huge presence on the screens of movie theaters and television. But what about radio? Could the great visual suspense movie director make his mark there? Hollywood used radio in the 1940s and 1950s to promote their current movies as well as making people aware of movies they could see when they were re-released in the theaters or, eventually, on television.

Hitchcock had a role in creating one of radio’s best known mystery anthology shows, “Suspense.”  Forecast was a 1940 summer series designed to feature pilot shows to try before radio listeners. July 22, 1940 saw Aftred Hitchcock directing the first episode of “Suspense,” a 30-minute version of “The Lodger” by Marie Belloc Lowndes. Hitch had, of course, filmed an adaptation of this novel in 1926 as his first released feature. At the beginning of this program, Thomas Freebairn-Smith, the announcer, stated that “The Lodger” was the first choice for this program for both Mr. Hitchcock and for this show’s star and narrator, Herbert Marshall. Marshall had starred in Hitchcock’s 1930 film “Murder.”

This story seems truncated after one has seen the film. Set in 1888 London, it mainly takes place in the lodging house where Mr. Sleuth (Marshall) rents a room from Mr. and Mrs. Bunting (Noreen Gammill and Edmund Gwenn). Mrs. Bunting soon suspects that Mr. Sleuth is the serial killer the Avenger, a Jack-the-Ripper like murderer. Mrs. Bunting goes to an inquest that raises her suspicions and makes her fear for her step daughter’s life. Mrs. Bunting then rushes back to her rooming house to confront Mr. Sleuth. Rather than having an ending, like the movie has, this one ends up the the director stopping the action completely and then answering questions with other questions so that we, the audience, do not know if Mr. Sleuth is the Avenger or not.

Mr. Marshall does call this director “Hitch,” making us assume that the person speaking is Alfred Hitchcock. It is not. The director is played by Joseph Kearns doing an impersonation of Hitchcock. This would not have been noticed in 1940. Nowdays, after over fifty years of Hitchcock on television, we know quite well what the master of suspense sounds like. Joseph Kearns would later come to be the voice of the Man in Black, the mascot for “Suspense.”

The show ran from June 17, 1942 to September 30, 1962 as radio’s longest lived dramatic anthology show, although Hitchcock had nothing to do with this show after 1940.

Incidentally, Edmund Gwenn played the same role his brother Arthur Chesney had in Hitchcock’s original “The Lodger.” Also, Marshall and Gwenn were both stars in Hitchock’s then recent “Foreign Corrspondent” which was also promoted on this show.

“The Lodger” returned to radio form at least four more times in the 1940’s, including one promoting 20th Century Fox’s 1944 film remake.

Credits: Forecast presents Suspense 07/22/1940: “The Lodger” by Marie Belloc Lowndes. Alfred Hitchcock (director); Wilber Hatch (music); Thomas Freebairn-Smith (announcer). Starring Herbert Marshall (Mr. Sleuth, narrator); Noreen Gammill (Ellen Buning); Joseph Kearns (“Alfred Hitchcock.)

Sources: Radio Stars by Thomas DeLong Suspense: Twenty Years of Thrills and Chills by Martin Grams, Jr. On the Air: the Encyclopedia of Old-Time Radio by John Dunning The Best of Old Time Radio: Alfred Hitchcock by Athony Tollin and William Nadel.


Alfred Hitchcock Unravels a Murder in “Young and Innocent”

21 06 2010

“It was an attempt to do a chase story with very young people involved.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock seems to downplay his 1937 movie “Young and Innocent” with this comment to interviewer Francois Truffaut, but with the exception of some lapses of logic, it’s a very entertaining, thrilling and romantic murder mystery. Starring Nova Pilbeam (last seen as the kidnapped child in “The Man Who Knew Too Much”) and Derrick De Marney, it reflects many of Hitchcock’s favorite themes and features some spectacular moments of filmmaking bravado.

The film opens on a couple in the midst of a fight in what appears to be a vacation home on the water. Actress Christine Clay and her husband are arguing – he says she’s been cheating on him, and that she owes him her career. Lightning slashes across the sky, and the next thing we see is her body washing up on a deserted beach the next day, along with the sash that strangled her, which rests on the sand in the shape of a question mark. A passerby, Robert Tisdall (De Marney), finds her body and runs for help, but he is observed by two women who believe he must be the killer. He is caught by the police, but, after an encounter with resourceful young Erica Burgoyne (Pilbeam), escapes before he is arrainged.

Tisdall’s insists that the belt is not his – that he had a coat that with a belt, but that it was stolen. Enlisting Burgoyne’s help, they track down the coat while eluding the police, finally finding a tramp who had been given the coat without its belt by a man with a facial tic. They find a book of matches in the coat that leads them to a hotel, where the man they seek is drumming with the band (in blackface!). He’s been taking pills for his nerves, and under their influence, he shouts out that he killed the actress as he is caught by the police.

“Young and Innocent” was loosely based (with Hitchcock, is there any other way?) on the novel “A Shilling for Candles” by Josephine Tey. I read the book years ago, and the film version significantly changes the original plot, in which the mystery is resolved by Inspector Alan Grant rather than Tisdall himself. It was released in the U.S. under the equally off-base name “The Girl Was Young” — neither name really indicates that it’s a mystery.
The movie does feature a lot of action, from Tisdall’s ballsy escape from the law at the beginning, when he first steals his lawyer’s glasses to use as a disguise and then hides in the courtroom, to a couple of funny fight scenes, one at a roadside café where Burgoyne is trying to get some information, only to provoke a melee, and another in the flophouse where Tisdall finds the tramp with the coat. Another very amusing scene takes place when, in trying to create an excuse for her absence, Burgoyne insists on stopping in on an aunt, only to find that a birthday party is taking place; she and Tisdall end up stalled at the party for some time, making their escape only when the aunt is talked into playing blind man’s bluff.

In one of the film’s most exciting moments, Burgoyne takes the tramp’s advice and drives her flivver into an abandoned mine to hide from the police. The mine collapses, though, and Tisdall barely manages to rescue her as her car disappears. Fortunately her plucky dog, Towser, survives unscathed as well!

The extraordinary tracking/zooming shot that takes us from the hotel lobby to the dance floor to the stage to the eyes of the killer

The moment the film is best remembered for, though, comes toward the end – it’s an overhead tracking shot that takes the view from the hotel’s lobby into the ballroom, across the crowded dance floor to the stage, then zooms in on the drummer until his eyes fill the screen, at which point he blinks uncontrollably. The shot only lasts a minute or so, but it is so full of information and so sweeping that it feels much longer. At the time, Hitchcock was trying to get an offer from Hollywood, and he seems to be flexing his cinematic muscles with this shot.

Of course, in watching the story, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the police never seem to suspect the drummer, who, after all, is married to the victim. As usual in Hitchcock’s world, the police are barely competent. And Burgoyne, who starts out so capable and confident, ends up taking a back seat to Tisdall, even though she, the daughter of a high-ranking police official, seems to know a lot about police procedure.

“Young and Innocent” also includes a notable cameo for Hitchcock as a nosy cameraman outside the courthouse while Tisdall makes his escape. Although you don’t hear him say anything, he keeps making motions as though he’s trying to get the attention of a police officer who’s standing guard at the door. It’s the first of his cameos that shows off his hammy side.

Hitch had been singing the praises of Pilbeam in the press, but she never did work with him again, and only acted a few more years. Hitchcock appreciated her onscreen naturalism; I have to wonder how disappointed he might have been that she left the profession. Grooming an actress only to have her leave him behind would happen several times in the course of Hitchcock’s career.

Next, we’ll look at “The Lady Vanishes,” Hitch’s second-to-last British production and one of the greatest of all British films.

Alfred Hitchcock Uncovers “Sabotage”

15 06 2010

“Aside from a few scenes . . . it was a little messy. No clean lines about it.” — Alfred Hitchcock

If “Sabotage” was messy, as Alfred Hitchcock said, it may have been because it was about a messy business. Released in 1936 and loosely based on a Joseph Conrad novel, this is a story about urban terrorism, and while it does not succeed entirely, “Sabotage” is a gripping story of suspense, filled with sympathetic characters – some, a little too sympathetic.

“Sabotage” starred Oskar Homolka and Sylvia Sidney as Mr. and Mrs. Verloc, and was released in the United States under the not very appropriate name “The Woman Alone.” Mr. Verloc is an older man who seems to be German, though it’s never specified, and she is a young British woman. They run a neighborhood cinema that’s next door to a greengrocer (Hitch’s nod to his own father’s business) where a good looking young man is employed.

The story opens during a blackout; the authorities know it’s the result of sabotage, but the theatergoers see it as a mere inconvenience. Verloc is responsible for the blackout, as he is a member of a local group intent of wreaking terror in London. It’s not stated that they are German agents, but no one watching this in England in 1936 would doubt it.

The young man from the greengrocer, Ted, is actually from Scotland Yard, and he’s trying to gather information on Verloc; he’s also convinced that Mrs. Verloc is innocent, and is trying to protect her, along with her younger brother, Stevie, a wide-eyed boy of about fourteen. Verloc, meanwhile, has been told that his blackout did not have sufficient impact, and that his next act of terrorism “must not make London laugh.” In other words, people have to die.

Realizing that Ted is watching him, Verloc sends Stevie with a bomb to the designated place. The tension builds and builds as Stevie is held up along the way, until the bomb goes off while he’s riding a crowded bus. Stevie and the other passengers are killed instantly. Verloc is stunned when he hears the news, but does not think much of it; his wife is crushed, though. She takes refuge in their theater, where the Walt Disney cartoon “Who Killed Cock Robin?” is showing, and when the robin is killed, she becomes hysterical. (There’s a prominent credit for Disney at the start of the movie, so I was surprised to see that all it added up to was a clip from one of his cartoon, rather than something new.)

Mrs. Verloc returns to their apartment over the theater for dinner, but she and her husband argue, and she ends up stabbing him. She escapes the apartment just as one of Verloc’s co-conspirators, the bomb maker, shows up. Ted, meanwhile, has alerted Scotland Yard, and they’ve surrounded the place. Ted tries to get Mrs. Verloc to run away with him to mainland Europe so that she does not have to face a trial, but when the bomb maker’s latest effort goes off in the apartment, destroying Verloc’s body, there is no longer any point to running.

Ted’s willingness to bend the law to his own end echoes “Blackmail,” when the cop-boyfriend was ready to frame the blackmailer to save his girlfriend, although here it’s handled a bit more smoothly. The big problem with “Sabotage,” though, is the death of innocent Stevie, who had no idea that he was in any danger. It was just too much for audiences to bear.

The other issue is a little trickier – it’s Verloc himself. Hitchcock liked his villains to have a human side, and here, Verloc does not want to hurt anyone until he is forced to. Through most of the movie, he seems like a sweet man, and it feels wrong when he shrugs off Stevie’s death. We also never get a clue as to what brought the Verlocs together, considering he seems about thirty years older than her, if not more.

As in the music hall scenes in “The 39 Steps,” the cinema and greengrocer here shows Hitchcock’s natural ability to bring an area he knows well to vivid life, and the bustling crowds are a pleasure to watch. There’s a great scene at the zoo where, while Verloc talks to a fellow saboteur, a young nerd talks about the sex life of oysters with his girlfriend.

After the triumphs of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and “The 39 Steps,” “Secret Agent” and “Sabotage” were letdowns for Hitchcock. His next film, “Young and Innocent,” would reunite him with Nova Pilbeam, and would be a bit of a departure from the spy-thrillers he had released for the past few years.

Adam Philips Live on Stage at “The 39 Steps”

11 06 2010

This past Monday, June 7, I was the guest host for a talkback session following that evening’s performance of “The 39 Steps” at the New World Stages in New York – that’s right, it was me, live on stage in an Off-Broadway theater, talking about Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps” on stage, film and in book versions, and then chatting with the fantastic four actors who bring the show to life.

It was an amazing experience, and I was truly honored to be there. The show itself is terrific. It takes Hitchcock’s 1935 classic, grafts on the opening monologue from the book, and moves it along at a frenzied pace, making silly references to other Hitchcock movies along the way, including “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest” and “Strangers on a Train.” While the references are funny, they also point out that Hitchcock’s themes remained constant in so many of his pictures.

The cast was a lot of fun to talk to – they were candid, funny and charming, and it was a real pleasure sitting with them. As you listen to the chat, you’ll notice that one actor, John Behlmann, is REALLY loud – this man knows how to project, and as Richard Hannay, he’s onstage for the entire show, so that is certainly de riguer.

Left to right: Kate MacCluggage, Jamie Jackson, Cameron Folmar, John Behlmann and Adam Philips

So, here it is… you can download a mp3 or a zip file from the box on the right and put it on itunes and your ipod. You can also click on the box to play and skip the download. The sound quality is pretty good, although the audience is a little hard to hear. And if I sound a little flustered at the start, it’s because the stage manager’s introduction of me said a lot of what I was going to start with. Oh well!

Oh, and thanks to my daughter, Lucy, for taking pictures, and to my friend Paul Byrne for loaning me a really amazing recorder!

Alfred Hitchcock Spies Again with “Secret Agent”

3 06 2010

“There were lots of ideas in the picture, but it didn’t really succeed . . .” — Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock returned to the spy game in 1936 with “Secret Agent,” starring John Gielgud, Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre and Robert Young. It was Hitch’s third spy thriller in a row, with a cast that was probably the best he had assembled to date.

Based on the novel “Ashenden” by Somerset Maugham, the story is set in 1916 and begins when British intelligence fakes the death of an officer, then drafts him into service as a spy under the name Richard Ashenden. He is sent to mainland Europe to stop an unknown enemy agent from igniting another front in the war. Ashenden is introduced to the man who will be his assistant: The General, played with manic intensity by Peter Lorre. While Lorre’s fake Hispanic accent is almost laughable, he is a powerful presence in the film, especially when he stops chasing women and gets down to the serious business at hand.

Ashenden has another assistant as well: Elsa, played by Carroll, who has been sent to aide him by posing as his wife; apparently Ashenden’s masters believe that since he was single before his death, he needs a wife now to help cover his true identity. The trio pick up some clues and trump up a mountain climbing expedition in order to kill the man they believe to be the enemy agent, but after the General pushes him off the mountain, they learn that they had the wrong man.

While Elsa is overcome by guilt, as well as suspicion that Ashenden has no conscience, Lorre gleefully accepts what’s happened as collateral damage. Ashenden decides to quit before it’s too late for him, but is talked into finishing the job. They follow more clues that lead to a giant German chocolate factory, where they are discovered. There’s a terrific chase through the monumental sets, marred only by Lorre throwing the least convincing punch I’ve ever seen.

Elsa, meanwhile, has stayed behind at the hotel, where she’s been hanging around with the charming American expat, Marvin, played by Robert Young. Young must have been a breath of fresh air to Hitchcock, as he typified an American approach to acting that’s naturalistic, rather than reliant on stagecraft. Hitchcock would find other actors like Young in Robert McCrea and, later, James Stewart. By contrast, Gielgud, then the toast of the London stage, had a hard time adjusting to film work here, and never looks entirely comfortable on camera.

The film builds to a climax when Elsa follows Marvin onto a train bound for enemy territory. Ashenden and the General manage to get onto the train as well, but as soon as the train starts moving, it is attached by British airplanes. Just as the General is about to knife Marvin, the train crashes off its tracks. The quartet pull themselves out of the wreckage, but Marvin manages to shoot the General before he dies himself. The whole train sequence is reminiscent of the finale from “Number 17,” but more complex and convincing.

Still, Hitchcock judged “Secret Agent” to be not entirely successful, and it may be due to its tone. There are portions of it that feel like a comedy, maybe even a screwball comedy, and others that are dead serious. Usually, Hitchcock is a master at leavening serious, even morbid, stories with humor, but here the tones clash. It doesn’t really help that Madeleine Carroll spends so much of the picture acting like a comedienne, only to be drained of her sprightly energy when things go wrong. She and Marvin flirt through the first half of the movie; when they are about to part ways, he hands her a photo of himself as a memento, with a mustache drawn on it and the words “the villain” added. It’s a chilling moment, as the viewer has only just learned that Marvin is the spy they’ve been seeking all along.

The very end of the movie, too, leaves something to be desired – we first see Ashenden’s superior receiving his letter of resignation, and then we crossfade to a lingering shot of him and Elsa looking into the camera to no particular effect. It’s as if Hitchcock knew what he wanted to say at the end – that they are finished with spy work and will live happily ever after – but didn’t quite know how to show it.

It’s unfortunate that this would be the last time Hitchcock worked in film with Peter Lorre; Hitch was very fond of Lorre, and one might wonder what they could have done together in other pictures. Lorre could have played the James Mason role in “North by Northwest,” for example, and brought more fun to that part.

Next, Hitchcock continues his run of spy films with “Sabotage,” starring Sylvia Sidney and Oskar Homolka, based on a novel by Joseph Conrad. (This time for sure!)

%d bloggers like this: