DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – The Lady Vanishes

The Lady Vanishes is Alfred Hitchcock’s best film of his British era. It is an awesome cocktail of comedy, thrills and romance while simultaneously taking a peak at at British insularity.

This film could be seen as a predecessor to Hitchcock’s single setting films of the 40s and 50s. Although The Lady Vanishes does not take place in one exact location like Lifeboat, Rope, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, it does manage to convey a sense of claustrophobia. The cast of characters start the film as cramped guests in a hotel and end up as cramped passengers on a train. 

This tightness results in a lurid intimacy that Hitchcock shows here. You have the duo of Charters and Caldicott who may or may not be gay. We know Hitchcock films do not have an issue peering into queerness. We’ll see this later in 1940’s Rebecca and 1948’s Rope. You have Mr. and “Mrs.” Todhunter, an adulterous couple. Then you have our protagonist, Iris Henderson, played wonderfully by Margaret Lockwood, first introduced with her friends in the hotel as she prepares to leave for her wedding to a rich man to further her societal status. Once she meets Michael Redgrave’s Gilbert, a courtship begins throughout the film that is dripping with sexual energy.

Hitchcock does an excellent job in getting the audience to care about the disappearance of the titular “lady,” Miss Froy by having May Whitty dominate her scenes and become a singular presence so that you feel her absence once it occurs. If we don’t feel ourselves missing Miss Froy, then it becomes difficult for us to feel for Iris as she searches for the woman and is not believed and doubted at every turn. Again, Hitchcock’s skill as a cinematic manipulator is top notch.

One area that differentiates The Lady Vanishes from subsequent Hitchcock films is its heroine. Lockwood’s Iris, while certainly initially aristocratic, is not the typical icy and damaged Hitchcockian woman. She does not operate from a point of despair like Marion Crane. She doesn’t have a tragic backstory like Marnie or is terrorized like Melanie from The Birds. She isn’t manipulated like Alica Huberman of Notorious. Iris’ actions are to simply get to the bottom of the vanishing of Miss Froy because it is the right thing to do. 

Iris’ determination eventually spreads through to the other characters who all initially refuse to become involved in the search, focusing on their own wants and desires, much like people tend to when they consider their class and status in life and that since they are secure, there is no need for them to stick their neck out for anyone. However, once things take a dark turn into the climatic shootout, and Charters is shot in the hand, the fantasy of the audience watching and the grim reality of the characters being watched, smash together to create a thrilling sequence where these characters who only cared for themselves, answer the call to do the right thing against a foreign fascists.

While Jamaica Inn would end up becoming the film that closes out Hitchcock’s time in Britain before he comes to America, The Lady Vanishes is his biggest achievement of that period. It bursts of youthful energy that may have not only been a goodbye to England, but officially to his own youth as he was about to turn 40. It almost is like a myth of a plucky young hero out to save the day. I can imagine with World War II on the horizon this was needed. Yet even with The Lady Vanishes being the close of an era, it is a clear indication of the future of Hitchcock’s filmography.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction: Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur, as it unfolds, feels very much like the movie this genre/sub genre was building towards. Everything about it excels over many of its contemporaries. It may be the best directed (in competition with DeMille’s Ten Commandments from 3 years prior). It has an outstanding production design, one of the best musical scores in movie history, and a top performance from Charlton Heston. These things combined with a good story of a man’s journey from revenge to forgiveness make for one of the crowning achievements of cinema history. 

I’ve come to feel that the biblical epic film works when there is an individual human story to latch onto in the midst of the religious story being portrayed. In Quo Vadis it is about a Roman soldier who falls in love with a Christian woman during Nero’s persecution of followers of Christ. The Robe follows a similar structure and its sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators has its main character essentially lose his way while participating in the arena. There are some exceptions, it can work without the human story if you make the biblical story feel splashy and grandiose like DeMille’s The King of Kings from 1927. However you can also end up with 1961’s King of Kings which imitates Ben-Hur in style, but ends up being a dull and boring affair.

The thing that makes Ben-Hur work is the journey of a man betrayed by a former friend who uses that rage to return home and confront him to restore his name, honor and to save his family. Even with winning the Best Actor Oscar, I think Heston gives a performance that is very much like the majority of his roles. The difference is that he inserts a layer of anger to fuel his motives. I think the initial argument between Judah and Stephen Boyd’s Messala where Judah remarks that “Rome is an affront to God” is the moment that won him the Oscar. It’s the Heston you know, but it’s different. Just a tiny bit different, but it makes the acting stand out in a way I’d never seen from Heston.

The spectacle is mostly held to two major set pieces. The first being the ship battle which had a great build to it from the moment we see Judah rowing to when he first meets Arius to the battle itself. It’s a patient scene (not just because the film is nearly 4 hours long). The other of course is the chariot race which is the signature moment of the entire film. It’s a breathtaking scene which also takes its time getting there. It’s a great scene metaphorically as well. The cheers of the crowd and the thunder of the horses can almost represent the rage Judah has built up over the years being excised at last against Messala. The thing about that rage is that it is uncontrollable and you can not get out of its way, repressed by charioteers (Messala included) being trampled and crushed beneath the hooves of the horses. A criticism I see of this scene is similar to one it inspires 40 years later in the podrace scene from Star Wars – Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. It can said that it is too long. My feelings on that are the same as George Lucas’ film, you get this kind of spectacle, you have to give it time to breath and time to take it in. The spectacle is earned  here.

The central theme of Ben-Hur is how one single act of kindness can go a long way. Judah is given water by Jesus, though he doesn’t know who it is even though the audience does. The next is Arius leaving his chain unlocked before the battle. A simple conversation and another act of kindness shows Judah how simple it can be. We see after Messala’s death (some great death rattling by Boyd), how unfulfilled Judah appears. These are some great character building moments and Heston is superb in conveying them. This leads to what I feel is the disappointment of the film, it’s final act. 

The last act has Judah seeking Jesus because he is known as a miracle worker, to cure his mother and sister of leprosy. However, the trial of Christ has already begun and we eventually get to his crucifixion. Judah reciprocates when Jesus falls and he realizes this was the man who gave him water all those year ago.  Then we conclude with the family reunited as his mother Miriam and sister Tirzah are healed and cured. If Ben-Hur was about a man who did not believe in God and does by the end, this would be a good ending I feel. Yet Judah does and always had. His story is moving past his desire for vengeance. The ending of Ben-Hur (and this is the same for the 1925 silent version) feels like a story meant to help people unfamiliar with Christ and Christianity understand the power of the faith. It feels at odds with the personal story that had been told over the last 3 hours. It’s certainly an old Hollywood storytelling technique and it undercuts the great story that was told.

Despite this, Ben-Hur is quite the marvel and it deserves to be. The genre had build itself to this moment and it truly is the peak. After Ben-Hur, the biblical epic did not have the same aura it once did and every effort following it, did not have the same impact. I take this as a result of moving from the 1950s into the counterculture of the 60s. New Hollywood filmmaking would become the norm and studios would have to adjust. However, Ben-Hur remain a testament to an era of filmmaking that truly sought to transport you to another time and place.

DeaconsDen Classic Reaction – Suspicion (1941)

Suspicion, while middle tier Hitchcock as best, still is another example of how well Alfred Hitchcock was at the things he was good at.

Suspicion, despite its title is not as heavy on the thrills as other Hitchcock films. This could be related to the title which was chosen against Hitchcock’s wishes (he though it a trashy title and wanted to name it Johnnie after Cary Grant’s character). He also wanted to adhere closer to the book “Before the Fact which the film is based on. In the novel the character of Lina may or may not have actually been killed by Johnnie, but the studio did not want to present a film where Grant was shown to be a killer.

So how does Suspicion work on the level of being a Hitchcockian piece of suspense? The film is successful in that it plays almost based on the doubts and fears of Joan Fontaine’s Lina. Typically you will have some outside force that begins the suspense, Fry starting the fire in Saboteur, the kidnapping of the child in The Man Who Knew Too Much or Jeff spying foul play in Rear Window. In Suspicion, it’s one simple thing: Johnnie Aysgarth is broke and Lina suspects he’s after her money. Hitchcock revealing that Johnnie has no money from the beginning is a good move for the story. Often something like this would be held as some big twist later on, but giving it at the start allows the audience to feel what Lina is feeling as the film goes on. From making the word murder while playing Scrabble to imagining Johnnie throwing his friend and partner Beaky off a cliff, these are palatable feelings that the director ties into. Lina’s husband has no money, he’s constantly trying to come up with ways to gain it. He was recently fired from a job for embezzlement and he expressed disappointment that her father did not leave them money after his passing. As the circumstances become more common, Lina’s fear being to mount. 

Another reason this works is Joan Fontaine’s performance. This was her second film with Hitchcock. The first was Rebecca. The role of Lina is similar to that of the second Mrs. de Winter. She’s kind of plain, bookish and quiet. The difference is Lina is from money and her Rebecca character is not. Almost as if the new character has learned some lessons from the first. Fontaine is excellent in conveying small expressions to show mounting fear. This certain would be why she won the Academy Award for Best Actress, making her the only performer to win an Oscar directed by Hitchcock.

While Suspicion may not reach the heights of Hitchcock’s filmography, it is still a very solid yarn that shows again some very primal human fears and how we enjoy partaking in it.