Director's Cut, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Blackmail (1929)

Why, hello, Mr. Hitchcock. I wasn’t expecting to meet you so soon.

Blackmail wasn’t Hitchcock’s first-ever film – he actually did six other silent films before this one.  This was originally meant to be a silent film as well – but midway through production, the studio asked Hitchcock to make it a sort of half-way talkie, with only one or two scenes scored with incidental sound and some dialogue and the rest of the film covered with intertitles. But Hitchcock was reluctant, partly because he thought the idea of a half-talkie, half-silent film was pretty stupid.  If you’re going to use sound, use sound through the whole thing, dammit – and that’s what he wanted to do.

However, Hitchcock had another problem. His lead actress, Anny Ondra, was a Czech émigré who had a very thick accent. It hadn’t been a problem for Ondra in the days of silent films, but for talkies, she was nigh-incomprehensible.  She was the lead, however, and it was too late to recast.  But Hitchcock was determined to turn the whole film into a talkie – so he hired a second actress, Joan Barry, to speak the lines off camera during each scene, while Ondra lip-synced her way through the whole film.  It works better than you’d think; I didn’t know this detail before watching the film, and was tremendously surprised to learn that, as I hadn’t noticed anything amiss.  At most, Ondra’s performance seemed a little stilted for the first few scenes, but that was it; when the story really picks up, Ondra’s emotive face carries the day, and I didn’t notice anything amiss at all.

And the story really picks up for Ondra/Barry’s character.  She/they play Alice White, a London shopgirl and the steady girlfriend of junior detective Frank Webber. But Alice is getting a bit bored with Frank; she picks a fight with him while out on a date early in the film, because she secretly has arranged to meet up that same night with another fellow who’s caught her eye.  When Frank storms off in a huff, she scurries over to her second date with Mr. Crewe, a dashing painter who lives on her street.  He invites her to come check out his studio and his paintings – but Crewe has some ulterior motives, and won’t take “no” for an answer, even though Alice is very much opposed to the idea of hooking up.  During the struggle, a panicked Alice grabs a knife from a nearby cheese plate and stabs him.

That’s where the story really picks up, believe it or not.  A panicked Alice tries to cover her tracks, but Frank – who is conveniently on the squad assigned to the case – discovers her glove left behind on the scene. He secretly pockets it, and goes to Alice to get her side of things and maybe figure out how to get her off. But unfortunately for both Frank and Alice, there was a witness – at least, someone who saw Alice following Crewe home, and also saw her leaving all by herself.  Instead of going to the police, though, our witness Mr. Tracey has decided to blackmail the pair.

And that leads to the scene that I felt was the most gripping.  It’s a wholly psychological showdown; Tracey has been toying with Alice and Frank for most of the morning, as Alice is wracked with guilt over her actions. But Frank gets word that Scotland Yard now suspects Tracey himself of the act – he’d been trying to blackmail Crewe over something wholly different, and had just left a subtly threatening message for him with the landlady.  Frank locks himself and Alice in a room with Tracey, then springs the news.  And for the next several minutes there is a three-way standoff – Tracey taunts Frank with the point that Alice’s involvement looks shady, while Frank taunts him back with the point that so does Tracey’s; while Alice, the only one who knows what really happened, is torn between letting Tracey take the fall, or fessing up.  It’s a deliciously suspenseful scene, even though it’s only a few minutes long.

From what little I know about Hitchcock, that suspense was his signature. But Hitchcock also did some nifty things to play up Alice’s state of mind immediately after the stabbing – including a scene (linked here) where a gossipy neighbor stops by the shop to discuss the murder.  She has a lengthy monologue about how shocking a murder by stabbing is in principle; but after only a few seconds, Hitchcock pans to Alice’s face and fades the sound down on the other actresses’ speech – except for the word “knife”, which rings through loud and clear, and is a word she perversely repeats over and over, making Alice increasingly jumpy each time.

So yeah, I dug this.

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The Thief Of Bagdad (1924)

Writing my review for The Thief of Bagdad was a bit of a chore.

Not because it was awful, mind you. There’s some simple charm – Douglas Fairbanks stars as a carefree pickpocket, cavorting his way through Bagdad as the film starts and living in the moment. When he’s hungry he sneaks onto balconies where he sees cooking food and helps himself.  When he’s broke he picks pockets or cons people out of their jewelry. He thumbs his nose at the law and mocks the imams at the mosque, having the time of his life.

That all changes the night he tries breaking into the sultan’s house, intending to rob his safe – instead, he blunders into the bedchamber of princess. He tries taking her maid hostage, demanding she lead him to the safe – but then sees the princess herself and is instantly smitten.  Coincidentally, the princess is of marriageable age, and the sultan has put the call out inviting a series of princes to the palace so they can court her; our hero disguises himself (thanks to some pilfered finery) and joins the fray, and the princess takes a shine to him as well.

The princess’ maid recognizes him, though, and turns him in.  He is sentenced to execution, but the princess bribes the guards to let him go.  Then, to buy time and give him a chance to earn his way back into the sultan’s good graces, she announces that she wants her would-be suitors to go on a seven-month quest for treasure – whoever has the rarest prize when they get back will win her hand.

It’s a total fairytale of a story; like The Adventures of Prince Achmed, it borrows heavily from the “Thousand and One Nights” series of tales, with Bagdad presented as a neverland of exotic clothes and pious wise imams, ornate palaces and charmingly roguish thieves.  There is even a moral lesson, when Fairbanks’ thief finally turns to the imam for help and is told that the labor he undergoes to find the treasure will “turn you into a prince”, for “true happiness must be earned”.  It’s indeed a nice sentiment – but then, because this is a fairy tale, the imam also then tells him about a truly rare treasure and gives him a couple hints about how to get past the magic macguffin guarding it.

And I think that that’s ultimately why I’m lukewarm on this; it’s a fairy tale, and I’m not a fairy tale person as such.  It’s fun to watch Douglas Fairbanks – who is clearly having the time of his life in this, swinging from ropes and scaling walls and getting into fights with imaginary underwater beasts, swashing and buckling his way through the whole film. And the film itself looks pretty, with lavish sets and exotic-looking costumes.  It’s just that Fairbanks’ fun is in support of a story that ultimately didn’t grab me itself.

It’d be a fun film to show your kids on “old movie night”, but not anything I personally would re-watch.

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The Eagle (1925)

I finally got my hands on a couple of older films, so we’re jumping back a few years to watch The Eagle, my list’s only entry featuring screen idol Rudolph Valentino.

Here, Valentino is a young Russian soldier, Vladimir Dubrosky, who catches the eye of Czarina Catherine the Great. She invites him to the palace one evening, presumably to discuss his promotion – but then she comes on to him, and a flustered Vladimir flees.  The incensed Catherine declares him a fugitive and calls for his arrest for “desertion” – forcing Vlad to scurry back home.  Where he finds that his father has lost the family estate to their neighbor Kyrilla, and has just died. Tough day.

Vlad vows revenge, and he and his father’s men take up a sort of Robin-Hood existence in the woods – donning black masks and stalking Kyrilla’s family. Before long, Vlad has the perfect opportunity fall into his lap – Kyrilla’s pretty daughter Mascha is in the market for a French tutor, so Vlad dons a suit and presents himself as a candidate.  In his role as tutor, he spends his days with the pretty Mascha while planting anonymous notes to Kyrilla around the house meant to freak him out, keeping Kyrilla on edge until the day Vlad finally decides to strike.  But the longer he waits, the more he gets caught up with Mascha, to the point he starts wondering whether revenge is worth it…

It’s a swashbuckling tale, with quests for vengeance, feats of derring-do and thrilling escapes, and it was pleasant enough to watch.  Actress Vilma Blanky has fine chemistry with Valentino, and Mascha’s character has a bit more agency than the usual silent film damsel – she figures out Vlad’s secret identity at one point, and sneaks into his room to leave him her own anonymous note of warning.

As for Valentino….Okay, can I admit something?  I really didn’t get the appeal. Valentino is indeed empirically screen-idol handsome, and he’s a fine enough actor in what was ultimately an okay plot. But I personally didn’t see anything that seemed worthy of the swooning admiration Valentino got from fans in the 1920s.  Then again, Valentino got more fangirling over his more exotic roles, like The Sheik (which I was actually surprised was absent from the list).  It’s possible the appeal was more about the exotic role itself.  He’s not the super-romantic fairy-tale sheikh here – he’s a more down-to-earth swashbuckling Cossack.  But to my mind this is the more interesting plot anyway.

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Man With A Movie Camera (1929)

So this movie was….

Hmm.  I sincerely do not know how to finish that sentence.  “Experimental” and “avant-garde” spring to mind.  As do “non-linear”, “a product of its time” and “….weird”.

Actually, let’s go with what Man With A Movie Camera was in a literal sense.  It was a big passion project for Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov, who had been growing increasingly uncomfortable with the general direction that film was taking as an art form.  He’d been struck by Nanook of the North a few years prior, and its use of “real” footage of Inuit life; even though that film did set up some shots, it also contained some footage of true-to-life Inuit customs – things that Vertov would never have seen if they hadn’t been filmed.  He was captivated by film’s ability to show people “real life” from far away.

However, instead of following the path into documentary, he feared the film industry was producing too much fiction and fantasy.  Even when there were movies about real events, like the  Battleship Potemkinfor instance, Vertov was disappointed to see filmmakers relying on re-creating and restaging events, rather than using footage of the event itself.  Or they would tell a fictional story about peasants instead of just filming the peasants.  Directors were getting stuck in studios, he feared; and he believed film could – and should – go anywhere.

Man With A Movie Camera was Vertov’s attempt to prove his point.  There’s no plot as such – it is simply a collection of footage Vertov shot in a variety of places in and around Soviet cities to show “real life”.  Shots of trolleys in Odessa are followed by footage of mannequins in storefronts, followed by a sequence of a woman getting out of bed and dressing for the day.   Shots of homeless men sleeping on benches are followed by footage of a woman giving birth, and later there are shots of women at an exercise class at a beach followed by shots of men repairing machines.

Vertov also uses some nascent “special effects” like split screens and odd camera angles, to further illustrate “what film can do”.  The whole film opens with a split-screen effect, giving the appearance of a tiny cameraman scaling to the top of a mountainous camera and setting up to begin filming:

That cameraman appears now and again throughout the film, to underscore Vertov’s point; riding in the back of a truck, camera in hand, or setting up at a beach, or striding down Moscow streets.

The only intertitle in the piece is a short manifesto statement at the beginning, where Vertov declares the film to be “AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE CINEMATIC COMMUNICATION Of visual phenomena” and then goes on to declare that he is forgoing  intertitles, a plot, or set, or costumes, or any other of the conventions of theater.  Film could be a wholly different creature, Vertov believed.

For those expecting a conventional film – like the audiences of the time, and I suppose like me – it is a confusing document, and you do find yourself trying to grab onto a plot like you’re used to. About midway through, I realized this was actually more like the later experimental film Koyaanisqatsi – simply presenting an assortment of footage in an effort to wordlessly convey a message.  And in Vertov’s case, the message seems to simply be that such a film is possible.

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A Throw Of Dice (1929)

In a sense this film is one of the precursors to Bollywood – produced on location, with a cast of Indian actors instead of Europeans in makeup, and with lavish art direction and a huge cast.

Inspired by a story from the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata, A Throw of Dice is the story of two royal cousins, each with their own kingdom.  Ranjit is handsome and kind, but a bit of a gambling addict; Sohan also likes to gamble, but is more interested in thinking up ways to steal Sanjit’s kingdom.

One idea he has early on is to have his henchman “accidentally” shoot Ranjit during a tiger hunt – but as luck would have it, they’re near the forest home of a reclusive healer, living there with his daughter Sunita. Ranjit’s men bring him to the hermit, with Sohan tagging along out of “concern”.  He’s not too pleased to hear that Ranjit will recover – but meeting Sunita softens the blow for him.  Sunita isn’t that impressed with him, however.

Ranjit is a different story – she and Ranjit fall in love during his convalescence, and when he recovers enough to leave, she tags along, as his fiancée.  Sohan tries another scheme or two to win Sunita or discredit Ranjit, but wedding plans proceed nevertheless. Then the night before the wedding, Sohan shows up to present Ranjit with an early wedding gift – a beautiful game board and new dice.  And hey, he proposes, maybe they could try it out with a game. But why not make the stakes interesting – instead of just gambling for cash, how about…each other’s kingdoms?  Or….Sunita?

There’s a plot twist towards the end that resolves things satisfactorily. And that may be why I was ultimately “meh” on the story – it’s a love story with a satisfying ending, and I’ve never really been a fan of the love story as a genre.

This is not to say I didn’t like the film.  I didn’t looooove it, but it was certainly pretty to look at; the film makes frequent and lavish use of various sites in India, instead of the filmmakers trying to shoot everything on a back lot. There are also some tiny moments that caught my eye, like when Sunita – still adjusting to her new life – has arranged for a secluded tryst with Ranjit.  She happens to glance into a water jug she’s carrying, sees her reflection and is struck by it.

And I also found the backstory pretty impressive.  One of the biggest reasons A Throw of Dice used so much Indian locations and casting was because it was a truly Indian production. Himansu Rai, who played Sohan, co-produced the film along with German director Franz Osten.  Rai teamed up with Osten five years previously, when he traveled to Munich specifically seeking a partner for a unique film partnership – Rai had the cast, the locations, and the funding, but none of the technical expertise. Osten was able to provide the camera crew, the film, and the director (himself).  The pair collaborated on three films, effectively launching India’s entire film industry.

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Storm Over Asia (1928)

Well, now, this wasn’t bad at all.

Produced in 1928, Storm Over Asia is ostensibly a Soviet Propaganda film – but in this case the propaganda actually takes more of a back seat to a genuinely affecting story and some surprisingly sensitive depictions of nomadic Mongolian and Siberian culture.  Our hero is a young Mongolian hunter and herdsman, the son of a renowned but ailing trapper who’s caught himself a beautiful silver fox skin. Dad is too ill to take it to the trade post himself, so he sends Junior to sell it in his stead – charging him not to take any less than 500 “silvers” for it.  “Enough for food for five months!” the family crows again and again.  Just as he’s about to ride off, his mother calls him back and gives him a protective amulet, one that’s just dropped out of the pocket of a visiting monk.  ….Sure, she could have given it back to the monk, and did try to, but the monk actually tried to steal the fox pelt first before being chased out in disgrace, so screw him.

The young hunter heads off to the trading post expecting a thoroughly routine transaction at the colonial trading post. However, the trader overseeing things is a bit of a difficult character (or, more accurately, a greedy bigoted jerk) and pays our hero a mere pittance for the pelt.

Our hero understandably does not like this one bit, and objects.  The trader refuses to deal further. Our hero protests further. And things get so out of hand that blood is spilled.  Our hero’s friends help him slip away unnoticed just as the Cossack soldiers are riding in to keep peace, and they send him away into the mountains, urging him to stay safe.

The rest of the tale for our hero unfolds as a series of blind chance. He stumbles upon a firefight between Soviet snipers fighting Allied troops during the Soviet Civil War, saves a sniper’s life and is adopted into the Soviet cause. He falls into the hands of the Allies, who sentence him to execution because the only word in English he understands is “Moscow”.  He is then rescued when a soldier idly examines the amulet he’d gotten from his mother, and discovers it’s an ancient scroll claiming that he’s a descendant of Genghis Khan. The Allied soldiers decide to turn that to their advantage, treating his wounds (the rescue sadly came after he was shot) and making him a figurehead leader of the Mongols, using him to persuade the people to do their will.

Our hero – whose name we never learn – is a perfectly wide-eyed naif through most of the film, bumbling into events and acting purely on what he feels is right. He knows nothing of the Russian Revolution; he only saved the Soviet sniper because he was about to be pushed off a cliff.  Most of the time when others speak to him, he just looks back at them with a mild, uncomprehending smile.  But the film has the sensitivity never to treat him as a fool – simply as someone who is in a completely foreign world, and at the mercy of those who are out to exploit him.

Even better, the film went out of its way to treat his world fairly. There’s a fascinating sequence about midway through, when the Allied commandant in charge of the region pays a diplomatic visit to the palace of a nearby lama on a Buddhist feast day. After a pointed sequence showing both the commandant and his wife dressing in their finery intercut with shots of the Buddhist monks doing the same, the commandant’s entourage arrives at the lama’s compound, are welcomed with great and reverent pomp, and are ushered into the presence of the lama – who looks a little different than he did the last time they saw him.

The lama has recently transferred to his next body, his advisor drily informs the commandant.  And while he can’t talk, “he still sees all, hears all, and knows all.”

A lesser movie would have shown the commandant scoffing at this, or his own entourage snickering. But instead, the commandant salutes the child lama with all the dignity befitting the occasion.  “We regret to hear of your recent passing,” he says, with a bow, “and welcome with joy your new rebirth!”

To be fair, the scene is most likely meant to play up the folly of both religion and colonial politics, since while the whole scene is playing out, the Mongol peasants are trying to defend themselves against a cattle raid conducted by the commandant’s men. But I was so struck by the depiction of a colonizing Western man treating an Eastern religion seriously instead of just brushing it off.  It makes the commandant’s decision to turn our hero into a puppet ruler even more mean-spirited.

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Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Image result for steamboat bill jr.

Now this is what I needed after Un Chien Andalou – Buster Keaton!

Keaton’s plots are almost cliché by now – guy is sweet on girl, obstacles are thrown in his way, he overcomes them and gets the girl, hooray. But you don’t watch Buster Keaton for the plot twists – you watch them for his expertise in physical comedy and comic timing.

This time Keaton is the long-absent son of a grizzled steamship captain on the Mississippi. “Steamboat Bill” pilots the run-down paddlewheel boat “Stonewall Jackson”, accompanied only by an equally-grizzled first mate. Bill’s wife resides elsewhere, and Bill hasn’t seen his son since he was a baby – Bill Jr. first went to boarding school and then to college in Boston. But now, to dad’s delight, Bill Jr. is joining him to work on the boat.  And just in time too – for Bill’s rival, the entrepreneur John James King, has just rolled into town with his own much bigger and souped-up steamship, and Bill could use the help.  However – instead of the big strapping lad dad was expecting, Bill Jr. turns out to be a slight-bodied artiste wearing a beret and brandishing a ukulele.

Image result for steamboat bill jr.

And to add insult to injury – King’s daughter Kitty was also in school in Boston, and has also come home to Mississippi – and Bill Jr. and Kitty were college sweethearts.

Both fathers are appalled at their kids’ romance, and strive to keep them apart – King by posting members of his crew as Kitty’s chaperones, and Bill by putting an inept Junior to work on the ship.  But some serious bumbling from Junior nearly leads to a boat crash with King, making the situation worse.  Then Bill discovers Junior attempting an out-the-window escape to meet Kitty, and it’s the last straw – he buys Junior a one-way ticket back to Boston.

Junior also faces similar rejection from Kitty, who doesn’t know why he didn’t show up the previous night.  Resigned, he sets out for the train station.

But King has reached a last straw of his own – and has complained to the local police, declaring the “Stonewall Jackson” a public danger. Bill storms over to King’s office for a confrontation, and is instead himself arrested for disturbing the peace.  Junior happens to see the whole thing, and realizes it’s now up to him to save the family business (and win back Kitty, maybe).

Most of the big-ticket stunts come in an extended sequence towards the end, where a hurricane wreaks havoc on the town. Junior is inexplicably one of the only people who hasn’t made it into a storm cellar in time, and there’s ample shots of him dodging tree branches, fighting wind, and trying to take shelter in collapsing buildings.  There’s a stunt from this sequence you’ve probably seen – where an oblivious Junior is standing in front of a building, and the entire façade falls forward toward him, but an open window positioned right where he stands spares him from being crushed.  I’d always thought the window was well-sized – but it is tiny, just barely big enough to fit around him. Reportedly Keaton’s mark was a single nail driven into the ground at exactly the right spot.  If he had been even the slightest bit off, he would have been killed.

So…it kind of feels a little unsporting on my part to say that I thought this sequence went on a tiny bit long.  Keaton’s genius, and all of the stunts he does are astonishing, but…after five solid minutes of seeing him bumbling in and out of buildings and leaning into the wind and taking acrobatic tumbles I was wondering why he couldn’t find even one building that wasn’t going to collapse around him with hilarious results.

This is a minor quibble, though. The film still made me laugh out loud several times, just like Buster always does, and is proof of Buster’s comedic genius.  In fact, a couple of the loudest laughs I had came from delightfully snarky lines instead of stunts – there’s a moment when Bill and his first mate are watching Junior making total hash of a simple task, and the first mate turns to Bill, handing him a pistol.  “No jury would convict you,” he says to Bill, nodding towards Junior.

There’s also a clever tap on the fourth wall early on. When Bill first sees Junior, he takes one look and drags the lad off for a makeover, including a stop at a hat shop to replace the beret. Bill plops several hats on Junior’s head, and he rejects them all in turn.  But he seems to especially dislike the exact straw porkpie hat that had become Keaton’s trademark.

…Amusingly, he also rejects a Chaplin-esque bowler pretty quick.

Alas for Buster, Steamboat Bill Jr. got mixed reviews and was a financial flop, as was his previous film, The General. He made one more go with a film about an aspiring Hollywood cameraman (it’s not on this list) before signing up with MGM and entering the 1930’s Hollywood studio system. The studio gave him way less creative control, and also forbade him from doing his own stunts.  The fun went out of filmmaking for Buster, and he started drinking.  Fortunately he was able to shake it off after about ten years, and spent the next several years doing a series of television and theater appearances, only occasionally appearing in film; and when he did, it was usually as a simple cameo.

But then a new generation of critics discovered his work and gave him a bit of a renaissance in the 1960s. He’s the star of a Twilight Zone episode, specially written to take advantage of his comedic skill and featuring a “silent film” sequence.

A few years later, he and Lucille Ball did a wordless sketch together during a TV variety special.

He returned to film in 1965, appearing alongside Zero Mostel and Phil Silvers in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. Despite simultaneously fighting lung cancer (which he thought was only bronchitis!), Keaton insisted on doing his own stunts in Forum – to the amazement of the rest of the cast.

I confess that this review is not only clip-heavy to show off – it’s also because this is Buster’s last appearance in the Movie Crash Course. And we have to bid him farewell – with thanks.