Watch out, Agent 326!

12 March 2013

Spies

From Fritz Lang’s Spies (Spione, 1928), the film Lang made immediately after Metropolis (1927) but before (1931), and which has some of the gee-whiz gadgets and terrific action that you might expect. But best of all is conflicted bad-spy Sonya Baranilkowa (Gerda Maurus), whose elegant, bejeweled hands we see here. Watch out, Agent 326!

And oh, that evil Russian’s clothes. Don’t even get me started.

Nota bene: don’t watch this streaming on Netflix, as you’ll only get part of the film. Look out for the 144-min. or 178-min. versions.

 

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Beware becoming overly attached to movies you haven’t seen yet. Beware investing too much hope in the idea of those movies; the head space you imagine.

A shot from Les Vampires (1915)

When I was a kid I found a book at the Salvation Army that contained the full script of Casablanca (1942), which I read and re-read for about two years before actually getting the chance to see the film. (Ah, the olden days, when local video stores sucked.) Sometimes I even read them aloud to myself — because, naturally, as a kid I had lots of time to cultivate my eccentric persona.

Having that kind of intensive familiarity with the dialogue made me disappointed by the film — I thought the actors breezed through those great lines too quickly, whereas I had been accustomed to letting the dialogue wash over me with slow, methodical pleasure. Even now I have a hard time with some of the best exchanges between Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Renault (Claude Rains), because that expectation of a different pacing still nags in my memory:

Captain Renault: I’ve often speculated why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me. 
Rick: It was a combination of all three. 

Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep, re-creating scenes from Les Vampires

(Don’t worry: it only took a few more viewings before I fell in love with Casablanca just as it is.)

I should know better. But I still catch myself fantasizing about what a movie might be, long before I’ve seen it. It’s like going back to that 12-yr-old place, in which my imagination turns out to be far more active than that of some filmmakers.

An example: a few years ago I saw Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996), a film-within-a-film tale about a manic, hapless crew filming a remake of Les Vampires (1915). I’d never even heard of that latter title, but my serious disappointment in Assayas’ film made me all the more fixated on the early silent.

Now, I can watch Les Vampires any time I like — it’s streaming on archive.org — but isn’t it true that sometimes we prefer to let the idea of the film percolate in one’s mind for a while?

Sometimes I imagine that if I’m ever given the chance to create a film of my own, it will be a tribute to the films I imagined — the narratives and love stories and fantastic voyages and melodramas I constructed in my fervid imagination, just from those tidbits of trailers or stills I came across. It’ll be about phantoms, as if a mad alchemist decided to create gold from the crazy mixture of that final montage of kissing scenes from Cinema Paradiso, a healthy dose of Guy Maddin’s psycho-sexual funhouse style (see here for JB’s great interview with Maddin), those partially decayed clips from silent film so beautifully laid out in Decasia, Christian Marclay‘s dedication to subtle segues, and perhaps a Pixar screenwriter or two.

Musidora (yes, Musidora) from Les Vampires

Fantomas of movies I haven’t seen. Maybe it’s bound to be disappointing, the way the Choose Your Own Adventure books held out all that promise and, most of the time, showed an even more awful lack of imagination than ordinary novels.

But still, doesn’t it seem appropriate that film should address its own phantoms, its unrealized plots?

 

Welcome to the Hitchcock Blog-a-Thon, designed to raise the funds to stream online three reels of the recently rediscovered 1923 silent movie, The White Shadow, for which a young Alfred Hitchcock served as assistant director, wrote the title cards, edited, designed the sets, decorated the sets, and learned everything he could about how to make a film. You’ve heard me rant about access to film before; now’s your chance to put some money toward universal access. Click here to make a gift of any size toward this effort.

In addition, check out the vast outpouring of Hitchcock blogging at three sites: The Self-Styled Siren, Ferdy On Film, and This Island Rod, each of which has taken a turn as blog-meister during this May 13-18 Hitchfest.

*****

Alfred Hitchcock cast a lot of different women as leads, but oh, his blondes. He left no doubt that each was a spectacularly beautiful specimen. Perfect to a fault yet surprisingly willing to initiate sexual encounters — even aggressive. Deliciously unpredictable (and occasionally malicious) for long stretches until, suddenly, she falls in love with the hero and becomes absolutely trustworthy.

Critics have complained bitterly about these women being portrayed as ice queens, absurd male fantasies — which they most surely are. But come on. Remember Grace Kelly’s first appearance in Rear Window? (See here for a clip.)

She enters the dark apartment as Jeff (James Stewart) naps, and bends down to kiss him. Hitchcock filmed it as if we were the object of her desire: that extreme close-up of her perfect face, coming in straight for us. When Hitch transitions to a side view so we can watch her plant a perfect, luscious kiss on Jeff’s lips, all the neighborhood noise drops away, and the shot is almost perfectly silent. Watch it and tell me if you don’t hold your breath while she kisses him/us.

Tippi Hedren, Madeleine Carroll, Eva Marie Saint, Kim Novak, Grace Kelly — via Hitchcock’s lens, these women are transfixing, spectacular, maddening. One might go so far as to suggest that Hitch helped to cement an abiding ambivalence about blondes into our collective psyches.

Which made me wonder how early he manifested this fascination with blondes — so this blog-a-thon offered the perfect opportunity to scour the Hitchcock back catalogue for some of his earliest films. And thus I found Anny Ondra, a Polish/ Czech/ Hungarian actor who grew up in Prague and whose total English-language career consists of these two 1929 films for Hitch: The Manxman and Blackmail, two films bookended by a long career of European films that stretches almost forty years, concentrated most heavily between 1922 and 1938, when she was between the ages of 19 and 35.

She wasn’t Hitch’s first blonde, but she seems to be his first repeat-offender actress. And with her, the die was cast. At the risk of looking backward from his classic blondes of the 1950s to ask whether Ondra possesses some of the qualities that would become quintessential to the Kellys, Saints, and Hedrens, I nevertheless offer that from the very earliest scenes in these two pictures, we know how untrustworthy her character is, how duplicitous. In fact, we’re reluctant to like her at first.

Except that she’s so flighty and girlish we grow more lenient; we come to see that she knows not what she does.

The more we watch her, the more we need to watch her. These films both utilize what now appears to be a ham-fisted cinematographical technique: frequent shots in which the characters break the fourth wall and face the camera directly — at first as a means of introduction, but later on as a way to pause for emotional effect. Ondra flirts at the camera as she torments her two suitors in The Manxman, an operatic tragedy of a love triangle. Clumsy though this technique might be, we learn a lot about Ondra’s true charms in the process, and we suspect that our own growing softness for her character mirrors Hitchcock’s affection for the actress.

Look at those sweet little butterfly lips, that delicate little chin, that over-permed hair. Those large eyes, that could narrow to slits or widen in horror: in sum, she’s adorable. With all those close-ups of her lovely little face, we’re able to watch her flirt, weigh a decision, worry, or fool a man (transparently). She acts the pants off of all her male co-stars, who are negligible, forgettable figures (except perhaps Carl Brisson as the happy-go-lucky Pete in The Manxman, distinguishable primarily for being a Tom Hiddleston look-alike, albeit without perhaps such a massive forehead).

But therein lies the first major difference between Hitch’s later blondes and Ondra’s appearances for him in 1929: Ondra is truly a girl, utterly lacking the cool, elegant self-possession of his 1950s ice queens. No matter that, at 26, she was a year older than Grace Kelly had been when they filmed Rear Window — Hitchcock wanted women for his later films, whereas in these very early efforts he allows Ondra to charm in a different way. Put her in a room crowded with Manx fishermen, and she glows.

And charm she does. I mentioned above that she’s portrayed early on in each film as a deceiver — the thing is, she ultimately becomes the central protagonist in each film. In The Manxman (the earlier of the two films), she steals the film out from under her male co-stars. As she lives through a marriage to the wrong man, she quickly appears as a foolish yet sympathetic girl whose haste in marrying dooms her to unhappiness. Likewise, in Blackmail she simply wanted to have a nice time with a man who gives her more attention than her boring, busy detective boyfriend — only to find herself in a tight spot indeed.

Blackmail has a simplistic storyline, but the added attraction of being a very early talkie — in fact, it sometimes appears almost as if Hitchcock arranged to dub all the sound onto the film later on. Neither is this purely a guess on my part. Ondra’s voice is entirely dubbed by actress Joan Barry, after the filmmaker determined that her accent would distract from tale.

No matter. Even without hearing her true voice in that film, we have preserved via the ever-magical YouTube this delicious little moment: a sound test for Blackmail, in which Hitchcock and Ondra engage in a delightful little bit of dirty verbal sparring. You can see immediately that Ondra is a charismatic little number — and that Hitch didn’t miss an opportunity to tell a dirty joke, and run his eyes up and down his lead actress:

Now, isn’t that enough reason to donate to the Hitchcock Blog-A-Thon — the possibility of being able to see, at your leisure, a gem like this one online? Please consider making a donation to the NPFF, and visit my colleagues’ sites to enjoy the wide-ranging conversation about the many sides of Alfred Hitchcock!

Film historians often estimate that 83% of all silent film has been lost, but that’s just a guess-stimate. No wonder we all cheer when we hear good news for a change. Back in August 2011, the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) announced that it had discovered the first three reels of The White Shadow (1923), a film long assumed to have been lost. Even better that this was the first film Alfred Hitchcock played a major role in creating — as assistant director, screenwriter, film editor, production designer, art director, and set decorator, all under director Graham Cutts.

Thanks to the NFPF, the film was restored and given a new score by composer Michael Mortilla. But unless you were lucky enough to see the premier of the restored film in Los Angeles in September, the film might as well be lost all over again. And you know how I rant about access.

That’s where the Film Preservation Blog-A-Thon comes in. Classic film bloggers FerdyOnFilm, the Self-Styled Siren, and This Island Rod are urging all of us to contribute posts on Hitchcock during a May Blog-A-Thon to raise awareness as well as the approximately $15,000 to stream The White Shadow for four months, thus making it available to anyone with access to a computer and high-speed internet. Our combined posts on Hitchcock’s films will further help raise awareness of the fragility of film and the need to make rare films available to all.

Plus, what a great excuse to dive into Alfred Hitchcock’s back catalogue and think about his talents for one intense week.

Want to know how The White Shadow was rediscovered? There’s often a great tale involved when presumed-lost films are found. In 1989 a man named Jack Murtagh discovered a pile of classic film moldering in his garden shed in Hastings, New Zealand and donated them to the New Zealand Film Archive. These three reels were misidentified until recently.

That’s not the only bizarre instance of rediscovery. In 1978, a bulldozer uncovered buried reels of nitrate film during excavation of a landfill in a small town in the Yukon, Canada. This town, Dawson City, sat at the very end of the distribution line for film during the silent era, so when the films completed their runs at the local theater, the reels were shifted to the local library — at least until 1929, when worries about the flammable nitrate film led to their being used as landfill. Stored for 50 years under the permafrost of the Yukon proved to be an extremely effective means of (accidentally) preserving classic film.

How about the time the full-length copy of Metropolis was discovered in Argentina?

Want to participate? Join the Blog-A-Thon by signing up at the three aforementioned blog sites; you can donate at any time by clicking on the DONATE button. In the meantime, happy Hitchcocking!

I’m going to enjoy watching those few, rare, Hitchcock silent films and thinking about their portrayals of women, gender, and sexuality — you’ll be seeing more of this in May, friends.

From Dimitri Kirsanoff’s Ménilmontant (1925), a silent film told entirely with images — it doesn’t have the intertitles that most possess. It’s remarkable — and only 40-something minutes long. You can watch the entire thing on YouTube:

Photography grew more creative at the same time the movies did in the 1910s and 1920s, creating amazing images like this. This post is inspired by Unexplained Cinema, where Greg simply offers striking images, stills, screen caps, and movie posters virtually absent of comment; I look at it all the time and envy his idea. I found the image above, however, at the blog Seraphic Secret where Robert Avrech has a lovely description of this Jewish actress, Alla Nazimova, who at the time (1921) was a major Hollywood power. This still is from Camille, which I’ve never seen — but it’s all in the looking, isn’t it?

Turner Classic Movies — that stalwart throwback of basic cable TV, the channel that still doesn’t have commercials or flashy series, is doing us all a public service this month:  they’re showing a new seven-part documentary on the history of Hollywood and moviemaking in America called “Moguls and Movie Stars.”  Tonight starting at 7pm EST/6pm CST they’ll show two one-hour episodes back-to-back:  “Peepshow Pioneers,” about the earliest days of film in the twentieth century, and “The Birth of Hollywood.”  Subsequent episodes will premier each Monday night until mid-December.  Best of all, tonight’s installments will be followed by a series of early silents that discuss race in film, starting with “Traffic in Souls” (1913) and “The Indian Massacre” (1912).

I’ve never had the luck to see “Traffic in Souls” before, but I’ve read about it — it played a big role in the early 20th-c. hysteria over white slavery.  White slavery had worked right-thinking members of the public into a lather since the mid-1880s, but had peaked in the 1910s with the passage of the famous Mann Act, or the White Slave Traffic Act, that forbade the interstate traffic of women “for immoral purposes.”  Like many public hysterias, this one got a good deal of its oomph from racist fantasies that nice white girls were being captured for sexual slavery by dastardly dark men (mostly Chinese and Jews); movies like “Traffic in Souls” and others were intended to keep fear alive, a la Stephen Colbert, so the public wouldn’t forget how terrible such crimes were.  Reputedly, however, film studios gradually cottoned on to the fact that audiences saw these films as titillating, so they got pulled from release.  No wonder that by the time Rudolph Valentino played “The Sheik” in the 1920s, women were well-primed to find his masterful quasi-rape of white women to be so wonderful as to be damn near pornographic.

TCM is following these two films up with D. W. Griffith’s classic “Birth of a Nation” (1915), that histrionically racist portrayal of the South and the KKK — one of those films that can only point out how much the 1910s were a foreign country.  But don’t despair, for immediately afterward will be shown one of the earliest films by a prolific black director, Oscar Micheaux, whose “Within Our Gates” (1920) exposes the nation’s history of lynching and mixed-race blending only loosely covered up by extreme white racism.  (I’m also glad to see, with this opening intertitle, that he challenges Northern fantasies of being altogether superior to those hicks in the South.)  I’ve never seen any of Micheaux’s films, and I’m looking forward to it.  It’s always good to know that there were prominent Hollywood directors who talked back to the movies’ racism even at one of the darkest points in American history. 

I know, after posts on “Buffy” and Julie Taymor this stuff is hopelessly geeky — and with that, I hope you’re as excited as I am.