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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The George Herman Hitchcock project, Chapter 3A: Champagne


Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2A and 2B


It was an admirably busy time for Hitchcock.  He completed seven features and two short  films of varying genres, subject matter, and tone amongst the medium's most massive shift.  In the previous section, I'd covered The Farmer's Wife.  In this chapter I'll cover Champagne (light comedy), The Manxman (romantic melodrama), Blackmail (thriller), Juno and the Paycock (comedy/tragedy stage adaptation), and Murder! (a whodunit).  He also directed segments for the musicals Harmony Heaven and Elstree Calling.  AND he directed a German version of Murder! called Mary.  Sadly, these last three are unavailable for viewing.

He was wrapping up production on Blackmail when the producers came to him with the pitch to turn that silent film into Britain's very first sound feature.  So it was clear by that point, Hitch's previous films' financial successes were significant enough for the financiers to bank on him to deliver such a pivotal film.

Let's take these remaining features one by one:

Champagne (1928)

Hitchcock's next to last silent feature is a very light comedy.  Though Hitch dismisses it as "probably the lowest ebb in my output" (Truffaut 57), Champagne is much more relaxed than most of his earlier films.  Kind of goofy, a cheap sweet bubbly, a trifle that's aware of it's triviality.

A rich man is tired of his daughter's lavish partying lifestyle, so he decides to teach her a lesson and pretend that the family has lost all of their money in the stock market.  She's forced to get a job and be responsible to which she fails and succeeds at varying degrees until the ruse is revealed and she's a better person as a result.

That's the whole thing.  Not much actually happens, but some of the comedy is actually funny.  He has game actors (Betty Balfour, Jean Bradin, and Theo van Alten) whom are good with their close-ups.  The characters are all a bunch of shmoes, but they're clear and understandable enough to follow through the 85-minute runtime.  Balfour's character is much less of a coquette than any of the previous Hitchcock femmes, though she dreams up a surprise fantasy sequence wherein the bad guy physically overtakes her.

There are lovely bookend shots of champagne being emptied and action being seen through the bottom of the glass like so:
And though there's no sound, the bounty of silent dialogue spoken throughout the film shows some level of subconscious(?) yearning for audio on Hitchcock's part.  Either that or he got a little lazy with this one, which he'd almost admitted.

(On a side note, the crummy DVD had terribly matched random classical music running throughout the film.  It distracted because it never fit any of the action and overlapped scenes and shots.  "Bolero" worked really well when it randomly came up, but that's probably because Ravel's composition feels so cinematic.)

Ultimately, the movie is paper thin, but should not be completely written off as a waste of time.

The Manxman (1929)

On the other hand, there's The Manxman.  Hitch had nothing nice to say about this one either.  And neither do I.

In what the great Hitchcock expert Donald Spoto described as "this relentlessly unhappy melodrama" (Spoto 19), a love triangle forms between three friends on the Isle of Man: a sailor, a judge, and a gaspingly irresponsible coquette.  The Flirt's been hooking up with the sailor for some time, but because he's poor he's not allowed to marry her.  So he leaves, declaring that he'll return with great wealth.  She promises him that she'll wait for his return.  She then almost immediately starts shagging his best friend, the judge.  A letter arrives saying that the sailor died at sea.  She declares her undying love for the judge.  Then (for reasons unexplained) the letter turns out not to be true.  The sailor returns home a success.  He gets the coquette's hand in marriage.  Neither the woman nor the judge have the fortitude to tell the sailor.  After the wedding, the coquette reveals that she's pregnant.  But it's not the sailor's child, it's the judge's!  And they still don't tell anyone!  The baby is born.  The sailor raises the kid.  The woman runs away.  She tries to kill herself.  Then everything is revealed in an interminably drawn out court sequence.

The best thing about this movie is that the Director of Photography's name is Jack Cox.  Actually Jack Cox was Hitch's DP eight times.  Jack Cox.

The male leads are from earlier Hitchcock films, each playing similar roles to their previous ones.  Pete the Sailor is played by Carl Brisson, who was the "good guy" from The Ring.  Malcolm Keen, the paranoid police boyfriend from the The Lodger plays Philip the Judge.  Anny Ondra who plays Kate is incredibly cute, but that doesn't distract from the fact that either her character is callous and daft or she's the true antagonist, destroying everything by taking no responsibility for her whims.

The film is frustratingly predictable.  I wound up unpacking five boxes of books while the story lumped along.  I described it to my wife as "The film before Hitchcock got his sh*t together."

Blackmail (1929)

The film wherein Hitchcock got his sh*t together.

Or to phrase it less crassly, Blackmail is of great artistic and historical interest.

As mentioned earlier, this was the first British sound film.  Unlike the US's Jazz Singer, Blackmail utilizes sound carefully, imaginatively, and effectively, much like Fritz Lang's M (Germany's first talkie).  There are long periods of silence where dialogue is unnecessary.  The word "knife" is repeated as a POV audio moment as a character mulls over her crime.  A bird chirps incessantly building up suspense.

There's great Expressionist-style high contrast lighting throughout the fast well-edited opening.  And there are fantastic distorted visuals throughout the British Museum chase at the climax.


And there's this...
...from a scene (34 minutes in) where it feels like Hitchcock has first pulled everything together:  blondes, sexuality, violence, suspense, morality, and questioning innocence.  Negligee and knives. The moment just clicks.  A birth of something new, taken from elements that were already there, like Pete Townsend discovering power chords.  I recommend clicking on the image to enlarge.  Along with the murdered child's balloon caught in electrical wires in Lang's M, this is one of the great visceral visual moments in the early sound era.

Oh yeah, there's a story in this film too.  PLOT SPOILERS HERE ON IN!

Alice (Anny Ondra, again, hot hot hot) ditches her detective boyfriend for another man; a horny artist that tries to take advantage of her.  He sexually assaults her, she defends herself with the above blade.  Then he quite dead.  She runs away.  The body is found.  While combing the scene the policeman-boyfriend finds her gloves.  He pockets the evidence, trying to shield her.  But there's a criminal who had witnessed her leaving the scene.  He blackmails both her and the policeman.  The policeman pins the murder on the blackmailer.  The police chase the blackmailer, who then falls to his death.  Alice goes to the police chief to confess, but their conversation is cut off.  And her boyfriend leads her away, her confession never delivered.

The film isn't perfect (it takes much too long to get going) but it's full of so many visual and auditory flourishes that it stands a full head over The Lodger.  But Blackmail's flourishes serve to bolster the storytelling of the film.  The aforementioned "knife" scene gets the viewer into Annie's head as she obsesses over her crime.  The heightened imagery of the chase sequence illustrates the twisted moral morass of the moment.

But I must stress this because it's an important part of Hitch's cinema:  In Blackmail, he is never asking us to meditate on society's ills.  He's crafting a piece of grand entertainment.  So if you like this particular flavor of cinematic ice cream, I recommend this film.

In Part B, I'll cover the last two films from this period, as well as George Herman Ruth's 1917 season.


Spoto, Donald. The Art Of Alfred Hitchcock. Anchor Books, New York. 1992.
Truffaut, Francois. Hitchcock. Simon & Schuster, Paris. 1984.

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