To Catch A Thief

To Catch a Thief 01This is Alfred Hitchcock’s most visually beautiful movie.  Filmed on the French Riviera, the gorgeous hills, dotted with old mansions overlooking the Mediterranean Sea vie with the stark beauty of Grace Kelly and chiseled features of Cary Grant to provide enough eye candy to last a lifetime.  The following review contains plot spoilers.

The story is simply an excuse for the beauty.  American ex-patriot John Robie (Cary Grant) is a former jewel thief who was known as “the Cat” before World War II.  He paid his dues by fighting in the French Resistance, killing over 70 Nazis proving his loyalty to France.  After the war, he put aside his thieving ways and lives respectably and very well, thank you, in a villa on a ridge overlooking the Mediterranean.  This idyllic life is disturbed when a copycat burglar begins stealing the most expensive jewels on the Riviera.  When the Police come calling, thinking he has renewed his life of crime, he evades them in a breathtaking car chase through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.  Turning his car over to a woman on the street, he hops a bus and sits next to Alfred Hitchcock.

He goes to see his old friend from the Resistance, Monsieur Bertani (Charles Vanel), who runs a restaurant that is manned by head waiter Foussard (Jean Martinelli) and more of their old Resistance buddies, who are all suspicious that the Police are right about Robie.  Bertani helps him escape with the aid of Foussard’s daughter, teenager Danielle (Brigitte Auber) who has a crush on him.  She takes him across the water to the Hotel Carlton, where beautiful American tourist Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) sees him.  He makes contact with a British insurance company representative, H. H. Hughson (John Williams), and pleads his case, that he is innocent and only wants to catch the thief to clear his name.  Caught by the Police, Robie is released due a lack of evidence and convinces Hughson to give him the names of his clients who have the most expensive jewels waiting to be stolen.  Abashed at having already had to pay out huge sums, Hughson agrees, also sharing the list with the Police to hedge his bets.

To Catch a Thief 02He begins by meeting rich American tourist Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), mother of Frances, and posing as a rich Oregon timber man.  After a stimulating evening, he escorts the two ladies back to their rooms, but before he can depart, Frances gives him a passionate kiss and arranges to meet him the next day.  While swimming, he runs into Danielle and Frances becomes jealous.  She and Robie take a drive to look at villas and are followed by the Police.  When he asks her to drive a little faster, she speeds up considerably, taking a kind of devilish delight in tempting fate.  They safely evade the Police and find a nice spot overlooking the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean and she tells him that she’s figured out that he’s actually John Robie.  He denies it, but after lunch the end up kissing again.  She tells him to meet her in her room to watch the fireworks or she will reveal who he really is.

That night, she seduces him again, proposing that they go into business together as burglars.  He continues the façade of being a tourist, but when she goes to sleep, he keeps watch in her bedroom.  During the night, however, the burglar robs Jessie of all her expensive jewels and finally Robie reveals himself to them.  Frances calls the Police on him and he departs over the rooftops as they arrive to search for him.

Hiding out, he stakes out what he thinks is the next target, alerting Hughson and putting the Police on notice.  As he waits in the dark, he is attacked by a man dressed in black.  Struggling, he throws the man over the cliff.  The Police find the body of Foussard in the Sea and announce that he was the burglar, clearing Robie of charges.

At her father’s funeral, Danielle becomes distraught and calls Robie a murder.  Chagrined, Frances again hooks up with Robie and he tells her of his plans to capture the real burglar by attending a fancy costume ball.  The Police follow and also stake out the ball, which Bertani is catering, with Danielle’s help.  After changing disguises with Hughson, Robie waits on the roof for the burglar to show up, but when he does, it turns out to be Danielle.

To Catch a Thief 03On Robie’s hillside villa, Frances kisses Robie again, remarking that her mother is going to love the house.

From beginning to end, the cinematography is stunning, so much so that the film won Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s longtime associate an Academy Award.  Although nominated for her incredible costuming, especially of Grace Kelly, Edith Head did not win.

This film has a different feel than most of Hitchcock’s work.  Although it contains a lot of humor, the film is not a comedy.  There is certainly some mystery as to who the real burglar is, but the film lacks the tension and suspense that mark most of Hitchcock’s movies.  In truth, this is a feel-good romance, concentrating, as it does, so intensely on beauty.  This was the last film he made with Grace Kelly before she married Prince Ranier of Monaco and gave up acting and it is appropriate that she shows so well.  Stunning in an array of dazzling Edith Head costumes, the three gowns she wears are all breathtaking.

It moves at a really good clip, coming in at under two hours, and you never notice the time passing because there is always so much beauty for your eye.  It is a fun movie, something you can’t really say about too many Hitchcock films and it transports you to a time and place full of such charm that it can honestly be said to elevate one beyond the every day.

A stunning film!  I highly recommend this movie for all audiences.

Wallander

 

?????????????????????????This BBC mystery series is actually a chain of films based on the novels by Swedish writer Henning Mankell featuring Ystad police detective Kurt Wallander, a middle aged man coping with the deterioration of Sweden’s utopian ideals as the country wades into the 21st Century.  The Wallander novels have attained a world-wide popularity based as much on the character’s accessibility as the gripping nature of the crimes he solves.

Although many of the novels had already been adapted into Swedish films, in 2006 Mankell formed a production company called Yellow Bird for the express purpose of bringing the novels to the English speaking part of the world.  Producers Anne Mensah of BBC Scotland and Andy Harries and Francis Hopkinson of Left Bank Pictures were brought in to shepherd the project.  Although many distinguished British actors were considered for the series, Kenneth Branagh was a fan of the books and directly interceded the process.  He met with Mankell at an Ingmar Bergman film festival and literally talked the author into hiring him to play the role.  Various locations were considered for the movie including Scotland and the state of Maine in the United States, but the importance of the country the books were set in, Sweden, ultimately won out.  The country is so important that it is like a co-starring character.

The first three books to be filmed were Sidetracked, Firewall, and One Step Behind, although eventually the other novels would also be filmed.  This article deals exclusively with the first three movies.

Sidetracked introduces us to the character of Kurt Wallander by immediately dousing us in the beauty of a Swedish field abloom with rapeseed (a bright-yellow flowering member of the mustard family–see the photo) that dominates the camera.  Wallender has been called in because a young woman is hiding in the field.  He tries to approach her, declaring himself as a policeman, but she pours a can of gas over herself and sets herself afire.  Wallander is appalled and perplexed.  “What’s our country coming to,” he asks, “when fifteen year old girls set themselves on fire?”  In this first movie we discover that he is recently separated from his wife and that his grown daughter Linda (Jeany Spark) who is deeply concerned about his lifestyle, especially his hideous eating habits and his devotion to his job that frequently leaves him burned out and exhausted.  He has a very difficult relationship with his father (David Warner), but Linda eventually brings them back together and Kurt discovers that his father now has Alzheimer’s.  We also meet Wallander’s co-workers, most of whom are as devoted their work as he is.  Anne-Britt Hoglund (Sarah Smart) works most closely with him, but the group of detectives also includes Kalle Svedberg (Tom Beard) and Magnus Martinsson (Tom Hiddleston)  His investigation of the self-immolation eventually leads to a former police executive who is running a forced prostitution ring, supplying young girls, many foreign, to provide as virgins to wealthy businessmen.

Firewall begins with the murder of a cab driver by two young women who calmly turn themselves in and then wallow in a fatalist state that reveals nothing of why they did it.  In this movie, Linda sets up her father to participate in an internet dating site and he eventually dates the first woman to respond, but his faith that he might actually be able to start over is severely shaken by developments in the story.  His investigation of the murder uncovers a plot to bring down the European banking system by way of computer hacking.

The third film, One Step Behind, is a much more personal story as Wallander investigates a serial killer who is so random that no pattern can be discerned, even though they bring in a professional profiler to help them.  He forms a close bond with a girl who might lead them to the killer, but she is murdered practically before his eyes.  This leads him to a much deeper love for his own daughter, Linda.  He also meets a very interesting woman who seems to understand what he is going through.  Ultimately, the killer becomes more daring and brings his carnage to Wallander’s front door.

The directing, under the guidance of Philip Martin, is very smart, combining both documentary and drama film techniques to bring alive the landscape of Sweden.  The films capture the modern architecture and the nearly surreal beauty of the countryside by using a very lightweight, high resolution digital camera.  They create a kind of stark beauty that makes the movies each stand out as a visual delight, a rare and extraordinary imagery that doesn’t just bring the stories to life, but brings the landscape front and center.  The use of color in the imagery consistently keeps the viewer in a state of hyper-realism that is bold and addictive.

Branagh is perfect as Wallander, creating a character that is completely believable and engaging, so personally involved in his work that the viewer is allowed to see a fully realized person, with all of his faults as well as his good points.  He is very easy to identify with and that is part of what makes the movies so special.  All of the supporting actors are also well cast and believable.

If there is any fault to find with the movies, it is that the first two mysteries are pretty easy to solve and there are points where you wonder why Wallander hasn’t put it all together.  In those first two films, I knew who committed the murders long before the detective did, even though the directors did not tip it off.  At a certain point, I realized that even though I knew who committed the crimes, the films concentrate so well on the personal aspects, Wallander’s character, and the nature of the landscape that it just wasn’t important.  The third movie, however, works both as a mystery and as a great real-life drama and it makes me eager to see more.

I confess that I’m not a great fan of crime drama or murder mystery, but Wallander goes far beyond simple genre filmmaking, into a depth of character and landscape that makes each movie very special.  I look forward to seeing more of the Wallander movies in the future!

Torn Curtain

Torn Curtain 3Alfred Hitchcock’s 1966 cold war thriller is unique among his films because it contains some of the best filmmaking since he moved to America and also some of the worst.  I will discuss the plot in detail, so there will be spoilers.

American physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) arrives in Copenhagen with his fiancée, colleague Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) to attend a conference.  Receiving a call that a book is waiting for him at a local book store, she picks it up for him.  Taking it into a toilet at the hotel, he reads a secret message telling him to “Contact π.”  His behavior disturbs Sarah and when she discovers he has changed his plans and will be flying to Stockholm, she decides to follow him, but he isn’t going to Stockholm, he’s actually boarding a plane for East Germany.  In a state of shock, she watches as he defects, stating to the press that he was disappointed that the United States shut down his missile program and he plans to develop an anti-missile system in Leipzig with Professor Gustav Lindt (Ludwig Donath) that will end the threat of nuclear war.  They have been shadowed by Professor Karl Manfred (Günter Strack) who arranged the defection.

Michael is angry that Sarah has followed him and repeatedly tells her that she should go back home while she can, but the East German government asks her to stay and work as Michael’s assistant.  Despite her disillusionment, Sarah decides that she loves Michael enough to stay and support his work.  At the time of the interview, he is informed by East German Security that he has been assigned a security watchdog, Hermann Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) who is to follow him around and watch his actions.

The next morning, Michael leaves the hotel and hops a bus.  Gromek follows him on his motorcycle to a museum where Michael tries to lose him.  Going out the back, he hails a cab and gives the driver an address.  At a farm outside Berlin, Michael has the cab wait while he meets an American agent (Mort Mills) who is under cover as a farmer.  It turns out that π is an escape network and Michael is going to attempt to get information from Professor Lindt that will aid the United States in their own anti-missile system.  Before he can leave, Gromek shows up.  Seeing the π symbol in the dirt where Michael had drawn it for the farmer’s wife (Carolyn Conwell), Gromek interrogates him.  As Gromek attempts to call the authorities, the farmer’s wife throws a pot at him and Michael attacks him.  As they fight, she stabs Gromek with a knife and they wrestle his head into an oven.  She turns on the gas and he dies.  Indicating that she will bury both Gromek and his motorcycle, Michael leaves.

In Leipzig, Michael is about to be debriefed for Professor Lindt when state security bursts in with the news that Gromek is missing, so they decide to debrief Sarah first, but when confronted with revealing American secrets, she can’t go through with it.  Speaking to her alone, Michael finally reveals to her that he is on a spy mission and gets her cooperation.  The cab driver (Peter Lorre, Jr.) sees the missing Gromek’s picture in the paper and comes forward, telling the police that he drove Michael to the farm.  When they arrive, the farmers are gone, so they commence digging and find the motorcycle 

After Michael gets the formula he is looking for, he and Sarah begin a convoluted escape route that includes assistance from a university clinic physician Dr. Koska (Gisela Fischer) and another man from π (David Opatoshu), eventually landing them back in East Berlin.  Their instructions call for them to go to a  post office and along the way the meet exiled Polish countess Kuchinska (Lila Kedrova) who wants them to sponsor her to the United States.  Their escape plan calls for them to go the ballet where state security hunts them down.  Michael’s only resort is to yell “Fire!”  During the ensuing chaos, they are taken backstage and put in ballet trunks for shipment to Sweden, the ballet’s next stop.  As the trunks are about to be offloaded, the lead ballerina (Tamara Toumanova) blows the whistle and a guard shoots up the trunks, but they are the wrong trunks.  Michael, Sarah, and their rescuer have jumped into the water and swim safely to shore.

Normally, Hitchcock’s scripts have been worked over for many months, if not years in advance of shooting.  In this case, the script by Brian Moore was not ready.  Both Hitchcock and Newman knew it and Hitch sought additional help with the dialogue, but the studio had foisted Julie Andrews on him as his leading lady and she had a very short window to film the movie, so they went ahead with a faulty script.  It did not help that longtime Hitchcock collaborators Robert Burks (cinematography) and George Tomasini (editing) had both passed away, so he was working with people he wasn’t completely certain of.  He also had a falling out with his longtime musical director, Bernard Herrmann, and even though Herrmann scored part of the film, Hitch fired him and had John Addison complete the work.

The second problem in the film is that the climax occurs when Michael finally gets the formula from Professor Lindt, but the film continues on for nearly forty-five minutes after that as the elaborate escape, done with Hitchcock’s usual sense of suspense, plays out.  It simply goes on too long and it should have been edited down to fifteen or twenty minutes tops.  It makes the movie drag exactly where you don’t want a movie to drag.  At two hours and eight minutes, the film feels like it goes on forever.

That being said, the movie also contains the best scene Hitchcock ever filmed: the killing of Wolfgang Kieling by Paul Newman and Carolyn Conwell. 

Although both Herrmann and Addison had written music to accompany the gritty scene, in the end Hitchcock opted to only use the natural sound of the three people in their life and death struggle.  We hear grunts, scuffling, and very little dialogue as the two men struggle with each other.  Hitchcock intercut the scene as montage, so the viewer gets glimpses of arms and hands, short close-ups of faces, and two-shots of the struggle.  Almost forgotten is Conwell’s terrific contribution to the scene.  They can’t make any loud noises because the cab driver is still waiting outside, so they can’t shoot him.  She tries to stab him, but in the struggle the knife only goes into his shoulder, the blade breaking off and blood soaking his shirt.  She takes a shovel and bangs his knees to make him go to the floor.  Kieling gets both of his hands around Newman’s neck and tries to choke him, but Conwell begins to drag them across the floor, her face sweaty and creased with the exertion.  In the final moments, Hitchcock shoots the scene from above the oven and we see Newman and Conwell gasping for air as Kieling’s hands go through the paroxysm of death, fighting against the gas and gradually giving in, eventually resting with no movement at all.  If feels like an absolutely real death.

The reactions of Newman and Conwell afterward is just as important. As they regain their breath, the viewer can see the emotional scars of the act of killing: the trembling, the sweat, the redness of their faces, the disbelief that they have just taken a man’s life. 

It is overpowering cinema. 

When I first saw this movie in a theater in 1966, that scene haunted me and I have never forgotten it.  I think it has a much greater impact than the shower killing in Psycho, which is generally considered Hitchcock’s best murder scene.

There are other wonderful things in the movie to delight film students and Hitchcock fans.  The scene in the museum, for example, where Hitchcock never shows Gromek following Michael, but we hear the echo of the pursuer’s footsteps.  The tension on the bus on the escape back to East Berlin is almost unbearable.

However, even with all of the wonderful techniques of Hitchcock at his best, the film as a whole has too many problems to be considered one of his best.  A flabby script, lenient editing, and way too much time at the end all work together to sink this movie.  In fact, in the canon of films that Hitchcock made in America, it must be considered one of his least successful.

The Big Sleep

The-Big-Sleep Bogart BacallThis 1946 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective novel remains one of the best films ever made for a variety of reasons.

Start with Chandler’s novel, written in a unique voice and style, that delved into the underworld of big city vice, using dangerous and edgy behavior that were normally hidden from the public eye: pornography, promiscuity, and homosexuality. Phillip Marlowe stood out as a character.  He was mature, worldly, manly, direct in a way that even criminals found disarming.  Finally, you have a plot that wastes no time on deliberation or description.  It moves forward relentless, with a certainty that is not obvious until the reader finds himself breathless in wonder.

The film is directed by the brilliant Howard Hawks, who understood the story arc and knew he wanted to make a film that wasted no time. He hired the same writers who had fashioned his 1944 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, the great novelist William Faulkner and science fiction/crime wizard Leigh Brackett (one of the first women to break through into either genre) and told them to waste no time.  Unlike other screen adaptations, he wanted this one to leap directly from the page to the screen.  Working separately on different parts of the book, they finished the first screenplay in eight days.

Private eye Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is called to the mansion of wealthy retired General Sternwood (Charles Waldron). With two wealthy, bored daughters who move in a racy crowd, the old man finds himself blackmailed with the gambling debts of his youngest girl, Carmen (Martha Vickers).  Sternwood’s former detective, Sean Regan, an old acquaintance of Marlowe’s, has disappeared.  Before leaving, Sternwood’s older daughter, Mrs. Vivian Rutledge (Lauren Bacall) asks him if he has been hired to find Sean Regan, who had been seriously interested in Carmen, but he won’t tell her anything, but the wisecracking and banter between them creates a sexual tension that is palpable.

Marlowe begins by investigating the man who holds the gambling debts, a rare bookstore owner named Geiger, but he discovers the man’s assistant, Agnes Lowzier (Sonia Darrin) knows nothing about rare books and she stonewalls him on her boss. Hiding out in a rival bookstore across the street, he spends a rainy afternoon with the sexy proprietress (Dorothy Malone) before following Geiger home.  Waiting in the car, he hears gunshots, sees a car roaring away, and then finds Carmen inside, high as a kite, with Geiger’s body on the floor before her.  He finds a camera hidden inside a statue, but the film is missing.  Looking around, he finds Geiger’s notebook, filled with names and unreadable ceiphers.  Taking the book, he returns Carmen to the Sternwoods and finds that Mrs. Rutledge has no answers.

An old friend, Police Detective Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey) brings Marlowe along when they fish a car out of the ocean just off a local pier. It belongs to the Sternwoods and the driver turns out to be a former Sternwood chauffer who had also been in love with Carmen.  It has been made to look like a suicide, but the driver had been killed before the car was driven off the pier.

Mrs. Rutledge appears at Marlowe’s office the next morning with scandalous photos of Carmen and a new blackmail demand from a small time gambler named Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt). She can get the money through her friend, gangster Eddie Mars (John Ridgely).  Marlowe says he will wait for her call that night before the $5,000 in blackmail money will be paid.  During the day, he tails Brody to his apartment.  That night, Mrs. Rutledge puts him off, but on a hunch, he goes to Brody’s and finds not only Agnes, but Mrs. Rutledge as well.  Although held at gunpoint, he puts together the sequence of events as he understands them.  The chauffer had actually killed Geiger and taken the photos, but Brody stopped him and confiscated them to bribe the Sternwoods, which he had done before.  Marlowe suspects that Brody killed the chauffer, but Brody maintains his innocence and that killing remains unsolved.  Carmen shows up with a gun, demanding the photos.  Marlowe easily disarms all of them, but before he can get more information from Brody the man is shot through the door.

It is a complicated and twisting plot, but it moves forward relentlessly. The smart, sharp dialogue crisply moves the story along and renders it secondary really to the underplot: the growing relationship between Marlowe and Mrs. Rutledge.

When Hawks directed To Have and Have Not, he knew he’d found the ideal screen couple in Bogart and Bacall, so he was determined to reunite them for this movie.  By that time, their off-screen romance was big news in Hollywood and the pairing was natural.  With a great script and an excellent cast, Hawks shot the film in 1944, but it was kept on the shelf for two more years, partly because Warner Bros. was working feverishly to release all of their wartime films before World War II was over and partly because there were problems with Bacall.  After the huge hit with To Have and Have Not, she was considered a hot property, but her follow-up film, Confidential Agent, was a flop and she’d been widely panned in reviews.  Her agent, Charles K. Feldman, wrote a letter to Jack L. Warner, asking that several scenes in The Big Sleep be re-shot and the film re-edited to take advantage of Bogart and Bacall’s screen chemistry.  Warner agreed and the two actors were called in to film additional scenes, including the now famous scene in the restaurant that is full of sexual innuendo.

The Big Sleep Martha Vickersbig-sleep-dorothy-malone-humphrey-bogart-toastingbig sleep_cab-driver

One thing that becomes apparent right from the beginning of this movie is that beautiful young women are used in abundance to help create a strong feeling of free sexuality. It begins when Marlowe arrives at the Sternwood residence and the gorgeous Carmen walks in wearing a really short skirt and throws herself into his arms.  Then, you meet Mrs. Rutledge and Lauren Bacall shines as a young urbanite living life on the edge.  It continues with the girl at Acme Books, played by Dorothy Malone, who unpins her hair and closes the store to spend an afternoon drinking rye whiskey with Marlowe.  Then there is the female taxi driver that Marlowe rides with who gives him her card and tells him to call her at night when she’s not working.

In the pivotal scene between Bogart and Bacall that was re-shot, the two of them are talking about having a relationship in terms of horse racing. She wonders just how far he will go and he replies that it depends on her.  Is she willing “to go all the way?”  This tightly wrapped sensuality, contrasted against the violence, the mystery of not knowing exactly what is happening in a plot that moves forward darkly, relentlessly creates a movie that almost impossible to stop watching.  It moves that way right to the end, when we finally sense that Marlowe and Mrs. Rutledge will be able to consummate their smoldering desires.

Shot in beautiful black and white, the film has been restored to allow modern viewers to see it as released in 1946. The DVD also includes a documentary on the two versions of the movie, showing scenes that were cut and added, so viewers can see how much the film was improved by the re-shoot.

It is every bit as strong and engaging today as when it was first released and that is one reason it will always be considered a classic, perhaps the very finest example of film noir and one of the best movies ever made.