Alfred Hitchcock Presents “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” – Season Two

29 12 2010

We continue our look at “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” with episodes directed by Hitchcock himself from season two…

This season opened with the episode “Wet Saturday” (September 30, 1956), starring Sir Cedric Hardwicke, who appeared in “Suspicion,” and John Williams. Hardwicke plays Mr. Prince, patriarch of a wealthy family, who stands in his living room with his wife, daughter and son on a rainy afternoon as they attempt to deal with a crime of passion.

With Mr. Prince asking questions, the daughter, Millicent, tearfully explains that she killed a schoolteacher whom she believed was in love with her. He had come to see her in the Princes’ stables with the good news that he had been offered a job, which meant that he could now marry. Unfortunately, he intended to marry someone else, and so Millicent grabbed a crocquet mallet and brained him.

Just as they finish the tale, Captain Smullet pops in from the rain for a visit, and soon finds himself framed for the murder. On entering, Smullet heard the Princes discussing how easy it would be to want to kill the teacher, and Smullet agreed without realizing that it wasn’t just an idle conversation. Prince and his son, a foppish failed medical student, bring Smullet to the stable and, after planting some of Smullet’s hair on the corpse, force him to dispose of it.

Stepping back into the house, Mrs. Prince offers Smullet a drink, not realizing what had happened, but Smullet insists on leaving. With the captain gone, Prince tells his wife and daughter that everything’s been taken care of, and then calls the police to report the murder.

In his wrap-up of the episode, Alfred Hitchcock explains that the police did not believe the story, especially when Smullet insists that he is innocent.

The fact that the story has to be concluded verbally makes the episode fairly unsatisfying, although the performances of Hardwicke and Williams are a lot of fun. At the end, Hitchcock makes a very funny joke, pouring himself a drink from a teapot. Then, when he finds the milk pitcher empty, he says, “Oh dear, all out of vermouth!’

In “Mr. Blanchard’s Secret” (December 23, 1956), a busybody writer spies on her new neighbors, the Blanchards, in a story that puts a new spin on the voyeuristic mystery of “Rear Window.” Although the Blanchards moved in weeks ago, our writer still has not met Mrs. Blanchard, and is beginning to wonder whether she exists at all – or even if she is alive.

Although the husband, John Fenton, discourages her overactive imagination, Mrs. Fenton snoops around the Blanchards’ house. Her suspicions are aroused further by Mr. Blanchard’s skulking around her yard in the middle of the night and by his generally brusque manner. When Mrs. Blanchard shows up for a visit, though, Mrs. Fenton puts aside her ideas that murder may have been involved. But after Mrs. Blanchard takes a broken silver lighter and Mr. Blanchard is seen leaving his house in the middle of the night with a large, heavy bag, Mrs. Fenton convinces herself that he’s killed her to stop her kleptomaniacal ways from ruining his career. The next day, though, the Blanchards stop by with the lighter, which they’ve had fixed.

Mr. Blanchard’s secret was no secret at all. The episode has fun with the energetic Mrs. Fenton, but the whole thing is based on the very dated premise that Mrs. Blanchard would obey her husband to the extent that she does.

The wrap-up to this episode does not address the fact that there is no secret, but instead talks about something unrelated. Not a very satisfying episode.

After the disappointing “Mr. Blanchard’s Secret,” Hitchcock’s final episode of the second season of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” was the suspenseful “One More Mile to Go,” broadcast on April 7, 1957.

The story begins in the California countryside, as we observe a married couple arguing in their living room. The camera looks in through a window, so we can’t quite hear what they’re saying – but when the woman storms away from her husband, he follows with a fireplace poker with which he kills her. He then puts her body in a burlap sack , deposits it in the trunk of his car, and adds iron chains and other metallic items. Then it’s off to a lake where he intends to lose her – but as he turns off the highway, he’s pulled over by a traffic cop who says the man’s taillight is out.

The cop insists that it’s too dangerous to leave the light till the next morning. It will have to be fixed now. The man heads back to a gas station, but as the attendant works on it, the same cop arrives at the gas station. The attendant can’t seem to be the light to work, so the cop says the man had better open the trunk so they can have a look at the wiring. The man nervously says he doesn’t have the trunk key (they had separate keys back then), and as the cop tries to open the trunk with a crowbar, the light comes back on. With the light working again, the man goes back to his errand.

On the same road again, the same cop pulls the man over again. The taillight has gone out once more. This time, the cop tells the man to follow him to the police station so the mechanic on duty can pop the trunk and fix it – no charge. Sweating bullets, the man pulls onto the road, following the cop to what will surely be his arrest.

This was a very tense story, told in a simple, compelling way. It fits into Hitchcock’s film career in a larger way, due to the fact that the first act of the story – from the argument until the first time the man is pulled over – is told visually, with no dialogue outside of the muffled argument. How the man was going to escape the gas station without being caught kept me on the edge of my seat, in fact.


Alfred Hitchcock Runs into “The Man Who Knew Too Much” Again

27 12 2010

“Let’s say that the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional.” — Alfred Hitchcock

In 1956, Alfred Hitchcock did something few, if any, directors had done before. He remade one of his earlier works, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” updating it in many ways from its original 1934 version. Hitchcock committed to this remake to fulfill his contractual obligation to Paramount Pictures, but it’s also easy to imagine him rising to the challenge of how best to update the story while preserving what worked so well in the original.

The second “TMWKTM” is in color and VistaVision, and features James Stewart as the hero, Dr. Ben McKenna, with Doris Day as his wife, singer and theatrical star Jo Conway. With their son, Hank, the McKennas are on vacation in Marrakesh, when they meet Louis Bernard, a Frenchman of mysterious means, on a bus heading into the city. Bernard befriends them, but begs off dinner when something comes up. Meanwhile, Jo is convinced that a British couple from their hotel is watching them.

The McKennas cross paths with the British couple, the Draytons, at a restaurant. They say they recognize Jo from the stage, and the foursome end up eating together, although the appearance of Bernard at another table nearly disrupts dinner.

The next day, the Draytons and the McKennas visit the market square together, where violence erupts when a man in a white caftan is chased by police and others. The man ends up with a knife in his back at Dr. McKenna’s feet, and as he falls, McKenna’s hands touch his face, rubbing off dark makeup. McKenna sees that the dying man is Bernard, who whispers a few words before it’s too late.

The police insist on taking in the McKennas for questioning, accompanied by Mr. Drayton, while Mrs. Drayton offers to take Hank back to the hotel. While they are talking to the police chief, insisting that they barely knew the victim, McKenna gets a call saying that if he wants to see his son alive again, he must say nothing to the police about what Bernard told him.

After being released, the McKennas go back to the hotel, only to find the Draytons gone. Dr. McKenna finally tells the hysterical Jo that the Draytons must have taken Hank. Following Bernard’s dying message, they fly to London to contact someone called Ambrose Chappell and stop an assassination. After fending off some old friends, Dr. McKenna locates Ambrose Chappell, a taxidermist who has no idea what he’s talking about. Meanwhile, Jo realizes that Bernard meant Ambrose Chapel, a place. The McKennas go there and find Mr. Drayton leading a church service. Convinced that Hank is on the premises, Dr. McKenna stays behind while Jo tries to get help from the police, but he is knocked out while the Draytons escape again.

The McKennas follow the clues to the Royal Albert Hall, where a gunman is preparing to kill a foreign diplomat during a concert welcoming him to England. Jo spots the hitman in the audience and screams when she sees him taking aim, saving the diplomat’s life. The diplomat thanks the McKennas, inviting them to visit him. The Draytons, meanwhile, are ordered to kill Hank by the diplomat’s assistant, who has been pulling the strings all along. The McKennas are sure that Hank and the Draytons are in the embassy, but the police are powerless to help. However, the McKenna’s wangle an invitation to that night’s reception, where Jo is called upon to sing – and sing she does, belting out “Que Sera Sera” at the top of her lungs so Hank can her it.

Dr. McKenna slips away and finds Hank upstairs with Mrs. Drayton, but is cornered by Mr. Drayton, who walks him and Hank back downstairs at gunpoint. As they turn a corner on the staircase, Dr. McKenna trips Mr. Drayton, pitching him down the stairs and causing his gun to fire. The guests crowd around the now dead kidnapper while the McKennas are reunited.

“The Man Who Knew Too Much” features Hitchcock’s most exotic location, with colorful scenes filmed in Morocco. As American tourists, the McKennas marvel at what they see, and also struggle with local customs. (Hitchcock makes his cameo during the market scene, his back to the camera as he watches acrobats perform.) The strangeness of Marrakesh helps increase the tension in comparison to the original, which was set in relatively familiar Switzerland.

The second half of the movie, set in London, replicates the original version more closely than the first half did. The scenes at the church and the Royal Albert Hall are very close to the original, although the taxidermist scene is new, and the finale at the embassy replaces the shootout from the original. Of course, Jo’s singing career provides are more subtle way to save her child than the original version, in which the sharp-shooting mother, Jill, guns down the last of the kidnappers to save her daughter.

This version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” focuses primarily on the family endangered by what they’ve learned; the villains are not terribly interesting, and certainly pale in comparison to the 1934 version’s charismatic international criminal played by Peter Lorre. On the other hand, the McKennas’ desperation to find their son is far more convincing than the parents from 1934. James Stewart’s Dr. McKenna is forcefully American, expecting rights that may not be his in a foreign land, while Doris Day is every bit as clever as her husband. (Day, unsure of her performance, had to ask Hitch whether he was pleased with her work, as he never made any comment. Suffice it to say that Hitchcock was indeed happy with her.)

There is much more humor in the 1956 version, too, including the absurd fight that erupts at Ambrose Chappell’s taxidermy shop, and the utter cluelessness of Jo’s London friends, who are left for hours in the McKenna’s hotel room till the end of the movie.

Hitchcock creates numerous arresting visual moments in “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” from the chase in the marketplace, during which Louis Bernard’s white caftan is covered in sky blue paint, to Dr. McKenna’s escape from the church by climbing the church bell’s rope, ringing it repeatedly and attracting a crowd. Hitchcock also preserves great touches from the original, like the chilling sight of the assassin’s gun peeking out from behind a drape to take aim at the ambassador.

Bernard Herrmann conducts the London Symphony Orchestra

Hitchcock works again on this film with composer Bernard Herrmann, who after only one film with Hitch had gained the filmmaker’s trust. Background music is used sparingly in this film, and Herrmann decided to keep the original film’s classical piece, Arthur Benjamin’s “Storm Cloud Cantata,” during the Royal Albert Hall scene. It’s a delight to see Herrmann himself in the film, conducting the London Symphony Orchestra.

This is the final film Hitchcock made with screenwriter John Michael Hayes, who brings his usual wit to every sparkling line of dialogue. Hayes was not allowed to screen the original, forcing him to create entirely new characters. Tensions between Hitch and Hayes had been growing, and they would never work together again. (I’ll be writing more about the relationship between Hitchcock and Hayes soon.) Cinematographer Robert Burks captures the colorful bustle of Marrakesh in spectacular detail.

“Que Sera Sera,” originally won an Academy Award for “Best Original Song,” although it is listed in the credits as “Whatever Will Be.” Doris Day was not a fan of “Que Sera Sera” at first, preferring the film’s other original song, “We’ll Love Again,” although it is barely heard during the movie. “Que Sera Sera” has an emotional resonance in “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” as it is first heard early in the movie when Jo and Hank sing it together while he gets ready for bed.

Here’s the trailer for this version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” in which James Stewart talks directly to the audience, describing their trip to Marrakesh, “right in the middle of that whole trouble area…”:

Next, Hitchcock adapts a real-life story that fits his greatest theme with “The Wrong Man,” starring Henry Fonda.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”

20 12 2010

Although Alfred Hitchcock is the indisputable Master of Suspense in film, he was intrigued by short form storytelling as well as full-length features, going back as far as his short stories written before 1920 before he even entered show business. He made two short films in the early days of his career: “Always Tell Your Wife,” from 1923, and “An Elastic Affair,” from 1930, both lost to the ages.

Hitchcock’s involvement with short film began again in the 1940s with the “Bon Voyage” and “Aventure Malgache,” propaganda films he made with French actors during the waning days of World War II. He was also intrigued by radio drama, and was briefly involved with the popular radio series “Suspense,” directing its debut episode in 1940 (more on that soon).

In the 1950s, Hitchcock continually looked for ways to take greater control of his work, often serving as his own producer and “discovering” his own starlets. Hitchcock’s greatest vehicle for self promotion premiered on October 2, 1955 – just one day before the premier of “The Trouble with Harry.” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” was more than just a hit. It carried Hitchcock into a new realm, transforming him from one of film’s greatest directors into an internationally recognized personality.

It was Lew Wasserman, head of MCA and Hitchcock’s agent, who had the general idea that Hitchcock’s personality was big enough, his humor droll enough, that he could play a role in this new show. He would serve as a master of ceremonies, introducing each week’s half hour program with sly commentary, delivered in his deadpan drawl, and punctuating the story with a final quip. Hitchcock’s commentary was written through the series entire run by James Allardice, who would also write speeches for Hitchcock, as well as the amazing trailer for “Psycho.”

This was the age of TV dramas like “Playhouse 90” and, a few years later, “The Twilight Zone,” essentially anthologies that presented different shows with different casts each week. “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” focused on crime stories, sometimes simple, sometimes with a strange twist that would veer close to the supernatural – or, at least, the unexplained.

The series ran as a half hour from 1955 through 1962, and then expanded to a full hour under the name “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” for another three years, ending its original run in 1965. In that time, the series featured a wide variety of stars, including Hitchcock regulars like John Williams, Edmund Gwenn and Hume Cronyn to newcomers like William Shatner, Dick Van Dyke, Robert Redford and Angie Dickinson, as well as fading stars like Fay Wray, Claude Rains and Peter Lorre. The series also brought attention to writers like Roald Dahl, then best known for his short stories, and Robert Bloch, writer of “Psycho.”

For support, Hitchcock turned to someone he could trust: Joan Harrison, who had worked on screenplays for several of his movies in the 1940s, would produce the series, with actor/director Norman Lloyd serving as associate producer. Hitchcock’s involvement with episodes he did not direct was fairly limited: He would review the stories briefly and watch screenings of the finished episodes; reportedly, he had two responses to the screenings. He would say either “That was interesting,” meaning he liked it, or “thank you,” meaning he did not.

The most memorable thing about the series has to be its opening: The music, “Funeral March for a Marionette,” composed by Charles Gounod, had been a favorite of Hitchcock’s for many years. As the music plays, the series title appears over the now-famous self caricature of Hitchcock. A shadowy silhouette of Hitchcock steps into the frame, fitting into the caricature, and then, we cut to Hitchcock himself, looking into the camera, intoning the words that would become his signature greeting: “Good evening…” (You can download an MP3 of the theme song on the right from the My Shared Box.)

Hitchcock himself directed 17 half-hour episodes of the series and one full hour episode. In the next few weeks we’ll look at these episodes – those directed by Hitchcock – starting tonight with season one.

“Alfred Hitchcock Presents” made its debut on CBS television on October 2, 1955, beginning with Hitchcock’s explanation that the series will present tales of suspense and mystery, and that he would introduce the shows and then return at the end to wrap things up and “to tidy up afterwards for those who don’t understand the endings.”

Like the E.C. crime comics of the period, “Revenge,” the series’ first episode, has a shock ending. Here, a young couple, Vera Miles and Ralph Meeker, have relocated to a trailer park on the beach in California following her mental breakdown. They’re full of life and energy as he goes off to his first day of work, but when he arrives home he finds her unconscious. She was attacked by someone, but there are few clues, so the police can’t help.

They decide to get out of the park, although she’s so traumatized she can only say a few syllables at a time. But while they drive around, she sees her attacker. The husband follows him into a hotel and beats him to death, then gets back in the car. As they drive along, she suddenly says, “There he is! That’s him!” again – just as police sirens begin to wail.

The economy of the storytelling and the compositions scream “Hitchcock.” The most striking element of the story is the shift of the couple from vivacious and even sexual before the assault to traumatized, almost deadened inside, after it.

Hitchcock sums up the story: “It goes to show you: Crime doesn’t pay, even on television. You must have a sponsor.”

Joseph Cotten reunites with his former director for “Breakdown” (November 13, 1955), which opens with Hitchcock reading a horror paperback, leading him to mention the writer Louis Pollock, whose simple yet powerful story was adapted for this episode.

Cotten plays an executive on vacation. While giving dictation and talking with an associate, he receives a call from someone he just fired. The man is heartbroken to be let go, but Cotten’s executive shows no compassion. He then begins his drive back to New York, but before long, he’s forced to drive around a work detail about to get back on a truck to return to prison. In driving around them, he nearly hits a tractor; he swerves back the other way and crashes into the prisoners.

Cotten awakens to find himself completely paralyzed; he can’t even blink, but we can hear his thoughts, and he’s completely aware of his surroundings. All he can do is wait and hope for rescue. Two groups of men come by, one to loot the scene, the second are prisoners looking to secure clothes to help them escape. All the while his thoughts scream for help, but he can’t make them see that he is alive.

At last, a sheriff’s patrol comes by to collect the dead. They assume he, too, is dead, although he has discovered that he can move one finger, but there’s too much commotion for anyone to notice. Finally, in the morgue, the medical examiner is about to sign his death certificate when he sees tears in the man’s eyes. The medical examiner runs to get help as the episode comes to an end.

Cotten gives an amazing performance, as we see his paralyzed face in nearly every scene of the episode while we hear his voice, sometimes near panic, sometimes calm and rational. Hitchcock explores different angles on the scene, even shooting Cotten through a hole in the cracked windshield at one point. Of Hitchcock’s four episodes in the first season of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” this may be the strongest.

In “The Case of Mr. Pelham” (December 4, 1955), Tom Ewell plays a successful lawyer whose sense of self is shaken to its very core. The story opens as he meets a psychiatrist friend at his club bar. As he explains, for the past few days people have been telling him that they’ve seen him in places he hasn’t been: At a prize fight, on a street corner, even at his own home, where his butler claims to have seen him when he was out.

Pelham can’t make sense of it: When he arrives at work late after a restless night, his secretary presents him with letters he dictated that very morning to be signed. When he gets home, his supper has been eaten already. The psychiatrist wants to see Pelham in his office, but Pelham is convinced that someone’s trying to take his place. To throw the imposter off his trail, Pelham, who by now is getting more jittery by the minute, buys an uncharacteristically loud tie — and when he gets home, his double is already there. It is the loud tie that allows the butler to identity Pelham as the imposter, and to accept the imposter as the real Mr. Pelham.

The story closes a year later, with Pelham’s look-alike coolly shooting pool with a friend, calmly reminiscing about the time a look-alike tried to horn in on his life, only to go insane right in front of him.

In the epilogue, Hitchcock struggles as he is dragged away by sanitorium workers, as a Hitchcock double – or is he the real McCoy, or possibly MacGuffin? – accuses the other of being a phony.

John Williams, who played the delightful Chief Inspector in “Dial M for Murder,” stars in “Back for Christmas” (March 4, 1956) as Herbert Carpenter, a British metallurgist who is about to travel to Los Angeles with his wife to consult at an airplane factory.

We first see Carpenter working in his basement, digging a pit that he and his wife (played by Isabel Elsom) discuss as part of a wine cellar; as she leaves, though, he mumbles to himself about the pit being adequate to her height. He has murder on his mind, but just why, we don’t yet know.

It becomes apparent soon enough, though. When the maid brings in lunch, the wife, Hermione, tells her husband that it’s shephard’s pie, his favorite. He says it really isn’t, but she insists that it is. She lays out every detail of their departure, repeatedly reviewing what they’ve done and what they need to do. Carpenter shows just the tiniest tics of annoyance, but holds back. Their friends are coming soon to wish them a pleasant trip.

While their friends take tea, they discuss the trip. Hermione promises that they’ll be back by Christmas, even though the company that has hired Herbert has offered him a full-time job. She says that they will be back because she has a surprise for him.

After the friends leave, Herbert puts up with more of his wife’s annoyances, as she insists on redoing some of their maid’s work. Finally, he lures to the cellar, ostensibly to ask a question, and while she leans over the pit, he clubs her. He buries the body and leaves for his trip.

In the U.S., Herbert quickly settles in, enjoying his new home, and writing a letter in the voice of his wife to their friends; as he does so, he plans that in the next letter he’ll start to hint that they will stay in the U.S. after all. But when his morning mail comes, he receives a shock: included in it is an estimate from a contractor for his wife on a job of digging up the cellar to make a proper wine cellar, with work to start immediately so that it will be done by Christmas. With that, Herbert realizes that he’s finished.

Hitchcock’s introduction and final word on this episode has to do with head shrinking – and, as he says, this episode has nothing to do with head shrinking.

Williams and Elsom play their roles as a older couple beautifully; she nags him, he bristles at her; frankly, it’s hard to fathom why he would resort to murder. Most couples with this sort of dynamic just go on that way forever, putting up with each other. His chin-quivering nervousness after he’s killed his wife is rather moving; this is a mild-mannered man emboldened to action by the promise of a new life in California.

Next week, we’ll return with four episodes from season two of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” but not before we look at the 1956 movie “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” Until then, good night.

Alfred Hitchcock Reveals “The Trouble with Harry”

15 12 2010

“It’s taken from a British novel by Jack Trevor Story and I didn’t change it very much. To my taste, the humor is quite rich.” — Alfred Hitchcock

Released in October 1955, “The Trouble with Harry” is one of Alfred Hitchcock’s little gems: a black comedy set in autumnal New England that’s also a murder mystery and a romance.

After a credits sequence featuring artwork by New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg, we are treated to a series of breathtaking views of Vermont’s hillsides, brightly colored with autumn leaves. A small boy (Jerry Mathers) marches through the woods, toy raygun in hand. And then, he stops. Before him on the trail is the dead body of a man in a gray suit, his feet pointing toward the heavens. The boy, Arnie, goes running for his mother, but the body is not alone for long. Moments later, the parade continues, as Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn), who had been hunting rabbits, finds the body, too. Wiles decides that he must have accidentally shot the man, but before he can move the body, more people wander by: a doctor so absorbed in his reading that he doesn’t even notice the body when he trips over it, a tramp who takes the deceased’s shoes, as well as a woman, Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick), who talks to Wiles about the situation.

Wiles decides to bury the body and not alert the authorities – it was an accident, after all – but before he can do anything, little Arnie comes back with his mother, Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine). She recognizes the body as Harry, her estranged husband. What’s more, she’s glad to see him dead.

Finally, Wiles hides the body and gets a local artist, Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), to help him bury the body. Later that day, though, Wiles discovers that he did indeed kill a rabbit, which means that he couldn’t have killed Harry. He convinces Sam to help him dig up the body again, and so begins a strange odyssey in which Harry is buried and dug up again several times over the course of the day. Along the way, Gravely admits that she might have killed Harry. Rogers, too, could have been the killer, although it seems unlikely. After burying and disinterring the body over and over, the local deputy sheriff learns that something is going on. Marlowe throws him off the trail, but after learning from the doctor that Harry died from a heart attack, the group decide they must redeposit the body where they found it so that the deputy can find it on his own. With Harry above ground and definitely dead, Rogers is free to marry Marlowe; Wiles and Gravely, too, seem ready to become a couple.

The cast of “The Trouble with Harry” is filled with New England eccentrics, like Mrs. Wiggs, a local shopkeeper who tries to sell Marlowe’s paintings. Taciturn and unsmiling, she doles out sharp comments in her cluttered store. Miss Gravely is oddly vain about her age; Wiles has built himself up as an adventurer when he was only a tugboat captain, and Marlowe reserves the right to not sell his paintings to people he doesn’t like, even though he has no money. Shirley MacLaine, in her first film role, portrays Rogers as a forthright young woman who is thrilled that her troublesome husband is dead; when asked why she hit him over the head with a milk bottle, she repeatedly refuses to answer, saying that’s between her and her late husband.

There’s a bawdy streak to the movie, too, from Marlowe and Wiles’s conversation about Gravely, with Marlowe saying “no man has crossed her threshold before” and Wiles answering, “Someone’s got to be first.” There’s also a great deal of giggling when we learn that, in exchange for his paintings, Marlowe declined money but asked instead for a double bed. And of course, there’s the well-known line MacLaine delivers after Rogers and Marlowe kiss: “Lightly, Sam. I have a very short fuse.” Ahem.

The cast is a delight, helping to keep things light despite a murder and the chance that someone – or all of them – might be arrested. Forsythe is full of brash energy whether he’s teasing the local spinster, haggling with an art collector or trading quips with MacLaine, who gives as good as she gets. (Hitchcock would always say he discovered MacLaine.) Gwenn has fun with his role, too, letting his sea captain spin ever more ridiculous yarns of Turks running amok with machetes and so forth. This was Gwenn’s last film role with Hitchcock; he was 78 at the time.

“The Trouble with Harry” bears more than a passing resemblance to Shakespearean comedies like “Twelfth Night,” with its bucolic setting, its endless coincidences (really, how can so many people stumble upon that body?), a clueless authority figure, and, of course, romantic pairings. About half the movie was shot on location in Vermont, but bad weather made it necessary to relocate to the Paramount backlot. Before leaving Vermont, Hitch had the crew box up an enormous number of fallen leaves, which were then spray painted and pinned to trees on the new sets. The location shooting may be the most beautiful Hitchcock had filmed since “The Manxman,” shot on the Isle of Man.

Through the 1950s, Hitchcock had built a crew of trusted associates who served him well on “The Trouble with Harry,” including Associate Producer and Second Unit Director Herbert Coleman, who scouted the locations for this film, and cinematographer Robert Burk, who captured the blazing color of the fall foliage. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes, on his third consecutive movie with Hitch, drew on his own New England upbringing to replicate the cadences of the locals, keeping the script lively, fun and fast paced.

Most important, this film featured a score by composer Bernard Herrmann, who would work with Hitchcock on seven more films in the next ten years. Here, the score is bright and playful, emphasizing the farcical feel of the plot; at times, it even seems to propel the action, using plucked strings to echo the characters’ steps as though they were in a cartoon. In his best work with Hitchcock, Herrmann’s scores would enhance the story, setting the tone and pointing to important plot points.

Hitchcock also continues to edge closer to featuring an original pop song in this movie, with the song “Flaggin’ the Train to Tuscaloosa,” written by the great jazz composer and inventor Raymond Scott, whose songs were often heard in 1940s Warner Bros. cartoons. As in “Rear Window,” the new song is not heard in a fully orchestrated and performed rendition; here, it’s sung informally by Sam Marlowe as he wanders around the town. This would change in Hitchcock’s next film, “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” when Doris Day sings “Que Sera Sera.”

“The Trouble with Harry” was not a hit on release; it was too dark for American audiences, although it fared better in Europe. However, its tone helped set the stage for Hitchcock’s new venture into TV, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” which made its debut one day before “The Trouble with Harry” opened. Although AHP was often suspenseful and frightening, the introductions by Hitchcock featured the same kind of gallows humor as “The Trouble with Harry.” (Incidentally, Hitch makes his cameo in this movie at about the twenty-two minute mark, wandering by as the wealthy collector examines Marlowe’s paintings.)

Next, Hitchcock remakes his 1934 suspense film “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” starring James Stewart and Doris Day.

A Hitchcock Rarity: “Elstree Calling”

8 12 2010

Filled with singing, dancing and comedy, “Elstree Calling” is a ninety-minute revue that has roots in the past while looking to the future. Released in 1930, the movie is not officially available at this time, although you can find quite a few clips from it on youtube. It is, however, an interesting, if minor, piece of Alfred Hitchcock’s career.

Hitchcock co-directed this early British talkie with André Charlot, Jack Hulbert and Paul Murray; Hulbert appears in the movie, and Charlot certainly must have been related to the Charlot Girls who also appear in it.

Filmed at England’s famous Elstree Studios, the film apes the early Hollywood revues that were staples of the 1930s, like the “Broadway Melody” films. It consists of three types of segments, starting with a master of ceremonies who introduces the various acts, speaking into a microphone as though it was going out on radio and making silly jokes, such as referring to “the greatesto studio in Europo.” Then there are the acts he introduces – mostly singing and dancing acts, but a few comedians as well, all pulled straight out of England’s music hall tradition.

There’s another framing sequence, though, which is credited to Hitchcock. In it,

Gordon Harker, right, with Carl Brisson in Hitchcock's "The Ring"

a man attempts to tune into the show on that new invention, the television. In about half a dozen brief sketches, the man tries to tune in his set, but he only succeeds in making things worse – as well as giving himself shocks and setting off an explosion. The man is played by Gordon Harker, who had only recently appeared in Hitchcock’s films “The Ring,” “The Farmer’s Wife” and “Champagne.”

The official directing credits for these sketches don’t exist anymore, but I do believe that Hitchcock directed them for a few reasons. First, Hitch obviously enjoyed working with Harker enough to do so again here. Second, these are the only segments with Hitch’s typical fluid camera work; virtually everything else in the film is shot head-on to capture the performers as they would have appeared on stage. And third, these are the only parts of the film that attempt to tell a story, however slim it is, rather than present a vignette. Harker’s tinkerer experiences progress and setbacks in his attempts to make his television work.

The music hall performers are a mixed bunch. There’s the rotund bandleader Teddy Brown, who plays xylophone and drums; the blackface tapdancers called The Three Teddies; singer Cecily Courtneidge, clearly a star in this crowd; the singing, dancing female troupe The Charlot Girls; the endearing if awkward singer-dancer duo of Jack Hulbert and Helen Burnell; homely-but-funny Lily Morris, who sings “Always a Bridesmaid”; and Scottish comedian Will Fyffe, who performs in a kilt. Nearly all of their appearances are on a stage, in front of backdrops. Without a story or even a clue about their personalities, many of these acts are hard to sit through, even if they are somewhat quaint.

There is one other running gag, about a Shakespearean actor played by Donald Calthrop, who played the villain in Hitchcock’s “Blackmail.” Calthrop is determined to get out on the stage and perform a scene from “The Taming of The Shrew,” against the wishes of the emcee. When he finally gets his chance, the scene is a disaster, although he does not seem to be aware of it.

One of the more interesting aspects of “Elstree Calling” is that a few of the

Cecily Courtneidge in color

segments were filmed in Pathécolor, an early color process that looks like it uses red and yellow but not blue. It’s a pleasant effect, if not entirely successful, reminiscent of early movie tinting from films like “The Lodger.”

The Three Eddies. Not cool.

And then there’s the racism. Besides the blackface dancers, Teddy Brown tells an anti-semitic joke, and of course Will Fyffe’s jokes are based largely on the idea that Scots are so very cheap.

Still, “Elstree Calling” provides a window into the world of the British music hall scene, which was then fading away, while looking ahead to the age of television. And yes, when TV finally became commonplace, viewers spent countless hours trying to adjust their pictures, so Gordon Harker’s futile efforts here do have some prescience about them.

%d bloggers like this: