The Wrong Man (1956)

The Wrong Man begins with a prologue, not a written one, but a scene with Alfred Hitchcock at a distance, barely visible in the light on a dark street, saying that the movie we are about to see is “a true story, every word of it.”  Then come the credits, followed by a disclaimer where this is directly contradicted:

The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons, living or dead, is intended or should be inferred.

So, there!

The story is about a man named Christopher Emanuel “Manny” Balestrero (Henry Fonda), who works at the Stork Club in New York as the bass player in the orchestra. When he gets off work, while riding the subway, he looks at an advertisement for an automobile promising family fun.  For some reason, there is no advertisement suggesting that a bachelor might have fun with an automobile. But then, I guess a bachelor doesn’t need an automobile to have fun.

Then he looks at an advertisement for a bank, claiming to be a family bank. There is no advertisement claiming to be a bank for bachelors, so I don’t know where they would go to borrow money.  But then, I guess bachelors don’t need to borrow money from a bank.

The movie continues to drive home the point that Manny is a family man.  When he stops to get something to eat, the man behind the counter asks him, “How’s the family?”  When he gets home, he brings in the milk left by the milkman, which is a nice family touch, but either Manny works really late, or the milkman makes his deliveries extra early.  As he passes the bedroom where his two sons are sleeping, he looks in on them. Then he checks in on his wife Rose (Vera Miles).  The next day, his mother calls, asking him to stop by.  We later find out he has a sister and brother-in-law.  I suppose the idea is that what will soon happen to him will disrupt everyone in his extended family, making it much worse than if it happened to a bachelor who grew up as an only child and whose parents are no longer living.

In looking at the ads mentioned above, it is clear that Manny would love to take out a loan from the family bank to buy the car and have some family fun.  But that is just an idle dream for him.  He pretends to play the horses, marking pretend bets, and then checking later to see how much he would have won.  But his reality is dreary.  He may have to take out a loan, not for a car, but rather so that Rose can have her wisdom teeth removed.  And the reason his mother wants him to stop by is that “Pop” is not doing well.

Manny takes Rose’s life insurance policy to the company to get that loan.  While there, he is mistaken for a man that held up the company on two previous occasions.  They call the police after he leaves, and Manny is arrested and taken to the police station.  A police detective assures him that an innocent man has nothing to worry about, that only the guilty have anything to fear.  And yet, he is repeatedly identified as the man that held up one business or another, including the insurance company.

This is as unsurprising as it is unnerving.  If a Mr. Jones is already known to the witness of a crime beforehand, and he then testifies that Jones committed that crime, we have good reason to trust his testimony.  But if the witness had never seen Jones before the day of the crime, then his testimony to that effect should be treated with a fair amount of skepticism.  I have read of studies in which psychologists staged crimes before a room full of students.  In one, only 14% of the witnesses were able to correctly identify the “culprit.”  In another staged crime, 60% of the witnesses in the classroom, including the professor, identified the wrong man as the one supposedly guilty of the faked assault.  And yet, many an innocent man has been sent to prison on the basis of just such evidence alone.

There have been over a dozen times in my life where someone has mistaken me for someone else, saying he saw me at a store I never go to, or asked me how I enjoyed the concert, which I did not attend.  I usually joke that I hope these doppelgängers behave themselves so that I don’t get blamed for something they did. But when watching this movie, recalling those times where I have been mistaken for someone else makes me squirm.

In a lot of movies, Manny would be arrested, locked up, arraigned, and bailed out in five minutes of screen time.  But Hitchcock takes us through the whole process slowly, so that we experience the dread of handcuffs, bars, hard beds, and angular accommodations.  On the day of his arraignment, he has to show up in court unshaven, which only adds to his humiliation.

After he is bailed out, thanks to money raised by his sister and brother-in-law, Rose begins having a nervous breakdown.  She blames herself for what happened to Manny, but then she blames him, accusing him of borrowing money on a previous occasion so they could go on a vacation they couldn’t afford, something he had already admitted at the police station.  So, it appears that some of Manny’s money problems were self-inflicted, contrary to what we thought at first.

Then, at his trial, the prosecuting attorney, in his opening statement, says he will show that Manny needed to borrow money to pay off the bookies, based on statements he made to the detectives. Manny looks at his lawyer, Frank O’Connor (Anthony Quayle), negatively shaking his head to indicate that it isn’t true.  We heard Manny admit that he went to the race track a few times, but that is all. Did the detectives misunderstand him?  Did they purposely make this up?  Or were those supposedly pretend bets in fact real bets, and he was in trouble with the bookies? We never find out, since it ends in a mistrial.

The reason for the mistrial is that a juror expresses his impatience when O’Connor is cross-examining the eyewitnesses.  There are two witnesses, a Mrs. James and a Miss Willis, who both work at the insurance company, and who had picked Manny out of a lineup.  First, Mrs. James identifies Manny as the one that held up the insurance company where she worked.  Then Miss Willis takes the stand.  Manny’s lawyer asks her about the “alleged lineup,” to which there is an objection.  At first, I thought it strange that he would make a disparaging remark like that about the lineup.  We were able to see the men that were grouped together with Manny, and I saw nothing problematic about them.  Perhaps the subsequent dialogue reveals his misgivings:

O’Connor:  Were there any men in that alleged lineup you knew before that night?

[After an objection to his use of the word “alleged,” he continues.]

O’Connor:  How many of the men did you know?

Miss Willis:  One.

O’Connor:  And who was that?

Miss Willis:  Mrs. James’ husband.

Mrs. James’ husband!  What kind of lineup is that?  We saw the scene where the women picked Manny out of the lineup.  So, why didn’t we hear Mrs. James say, “George!  What are you doing here?”

Anyway, O’Connor then begins a tedious process of asking Miss Willis about the men in the lineup, including Mr. James.  He asks what the various men were wearing, how tall they were, and how much they weighed.  Who could be expected to remember such details?  It is at this point that a juror asks, “Your Honor, do we have to sit here and listen to this?”

He took the words right out of my mouth!  If this is the best O’Connor can do, I thought to myself, Manny is in trouble.  Anyway, justified or not, the remark occasions the request for a mistrial, which is granted.

After the mistrial, Rose has a complete mental collapse, staring vacantly off into space. She talks about how “they” will find Manny guilty no matter what he does.  Manny has to put her in an “institution.” However, he voiced similar sentiments himself when two of the men that might have provided him with an alibi turned up dead.  He tells O’Connor, “You know, like someone was stacking the cards against us.”  We don’t take his remark seriously, but it is intended to prepare us for what is to come; for it clearly suggests that there is a baleful, supernatural influence working against him, which can only be thwarted by a countervailing supernatural force for good.

And so it is that in what thus far has been an engrossing movie, there is a complete narrative rupture. Manny’s mother tells him he should pray.  He says he already has prayed.  And we know he has.  When first arrested, he has to remove all the items from his pocket.  One such item is a Rosary. Any man that would carry a Rosary around in his coat pocket is definitely religious.  During the trial, we see him holding the Rosary in his hands, under the table, presumably saying the prayers.  And so far, those prayers have come to naught.  Nevertheless, his mother says, “My son, I beg you to pray.”

Manny goes into the next room where he looks at a picture of Jesus on the wall.  We see him gazing at it as his lips move.  His image is superimposed over that of a man walking down the street.  He comes closer and closer until Manny’s face coincides with the face of the man in the street.  They have roughly similar features.

Well, the man tries to rob a store, and the owners subdue him and have him arrested. At the police station, one of the detectives working Manny’s case notices the similar appearance of that man to that of Manny. The end result is that Manny is freed.

This miracle ruins the movie.  And it is especially presumptuous, given Hitchcock’s claim that the story is true.  Yes, it was probably true that Manny’s mother told him to pray, and right after that the holdup man was arrested.  But given the way it is filmed, there can be no doubt that there has been divine intervention, something Hitchcock could hardly guarantee.  Maybe that’s why there was a disclaimer.

We never minded when we saw Manny praying with the Rosary.  Religious people pray in times of stress. And if he had subsequently been freed when the man was arrested later on in the film, we would not have felt obliged to see that as resulting from a supernatural cause.  But the scene involving Manny’s face superimposed over the holdup man as Manny prayed to the picture of Jesus makes it impossible to interpret that as anything other than a genuine miracle.

In Chapter XV of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the author reflects upon the fact that the degree of credence we accord to miracles depends largely on when they are supposed to have occurred.  He admits that in the early days of Christianity, the intervention of God was more necessary than it is today:

If the truth of any of those miracles is appreciated by their apparent use and propriety, every age had unbelievers to convince, heretics to confute, and idolatrous na­tions to convert; and sufficient motives might always be produced to justify the interposition of Heaven. And yet, since every friend to revelation is persuaded of the reality, and every reasonable man is convinced of the cessation, of miraculous powers, it is evident that there must have been some period in which they were either suddenly or gradually withdrawn from the Christian church.

And so it is, Gibbon goes on to say, that it is only with reluctance that even the most devout will admit to miracles in present circumstances:

In modern times, a latent and even involuntary scepticism adheres to the most pious dispositions. Their admission of supernatural truths is much less an active con­sent than a cold and passive acquiescence. Accustomed long since to observe and to respect the variable order of Nature, our reason, or at least our imagination, is not sufficiently prepared to sustain the visible action of the Deity.

And if Gibbon was right when saying this in the eighteenth century, then all the more so is this true in the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries.  People might still accept miracles that occurred in subsequent centuries, but Gibbon’s expression “visible action of the Deity” is significant.  What counts as a miracle no longer is something utterly contrary to what can occur in nature, such as when Joshua made the sun stand still.  Rather, it is something compatible with natural causes, but ascribed to the hand of God nevertheless.  We might say of such miracles that they involve the invisible action of the Deity.  When an airplane crashes, and all are killed except a baby, some may say that it was a miracle the infant survived, but we know that the skeptical will have no trouble attributing the event to mere chance.

What Gibbon said of real life also applies to the movies.  We not only accept, but also look forward to, the depiction of miracles in film as they occurred in biblical times, whether it be that of Moses parting the Red Sea, or that of Jesus walking on water.  But when a miracle supposedly takes place in a movie that is set in contemporaneous times, we do not see a marvelous violation of the laws of nature, but rather an outcome that could have happened naturally, but which the movie encourages us to regard as a miracle, usually because someone prays just before the event takes place, a conclusion we would never have come to otherwise.

For example, in Made for Each Other (1939), a nun encourages Carol Lombard to pray to a statue of Jesus that the serum for her baby will arrive in time to save its life, even though there is a blizzard raging so severe that pilot who is going to bring the serum will be risking his life to make that flight.  She does pray to that statue of Jesus, after which the pilot, who has had to bail out of his plane, manages to get to a farmhouse, where the farmer calls the hospital to tell them the serum has arrived.  Absent the prayer to an image of Jesus just prior to these events, we would never have concluded that God intervened to save her baby.  We’d have simply said to ourselves, “Well, that was a close call!”

After he has been exonerated, Manny goes to the insane asylum to tell Rose the good news, but she continues to stare off into space, saying it doesn’t matter.  He says to the nurse, “I guess I was hoping for a miracle.”  She replies, “They happen, but it takes time.”  The epilogue tells us that Rose was released from the hospital after two years.

Just as we were not bothered by the Rosary and Manny’s prayers during the trial, so too do we think nothing of this conversation about a miracle regarding Rose’s recovery. People speak of miracles figuratively all the time, meaning nothing more than a positive outcome that is unlikely.  So, it is only the literal miracle involving the picture of Jesus that ruins the movie.

There are movies, even those set in the twenty-first century, where miracles are perhaps more acceptable. If the movie lets us know from the outset that it is religious in nature, such as God’s Not Dead (2014), where God, we are invited to believe, keeps a reverend from being able to leave town so that he can get the dying atheist professor to ask for God’s forgiveness and be saved (i.e., so we can see the atheist crawl in the end), the miracle is at least in keeping with what has come before.  It doesn’t matter whether you regard this as a good movie or not.  The point is that the miracle is not unexpected, since we have been prepared for something like that from the beginning.

In the case of The Wrong Man, however, we have not been so prepared.  Up to the point of the miracle, this is the most realistic movie Hitchcock ever directed, and thus the fantastic miracle really seems out of place. When out of the blue, a miracle occurs as a means to resolving a dramatic difficulty, it comes across as a deus ex machina, a contrived and artificial solution to a problem that seems unsolvable.  In the case of The Wrong Man, however, the miracle could have been left out, and we would have accepted the arrest of the man who actually held up the insurance company as something that could easily have happened. So, we get the disadvantage of a deus ex machina, as something contrived, without any benefit, since there was no need for such a drastic solution to Manny’s problem in the first place.

In addition to movies that announce their religious themes up front, I suppose it is worth mentioning that we never object to miracles in a comedy, as in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941).  And whatever misgivings we have about miracles ordinarily understood, in which God intervenes for someone’s benefit, we usually are much more receptive to evil miracles, as it were, as when Satan intervenes for his own wicked reasons, as in The Exorcist (1973).

The problem with depicting a miracle in modern times is not only, as Gibbon says, that we are reticent to accept the occurrence of genuine miracles in the modern age.  It is also the fact that the supposed occurrence of such encourages reflection on the problem of evil, to wit, if there really is an all-powerful, loving God, then why is there so much sin and suffering in the world?  For a lot of religious people, this is not a problem. They have their pat answers, involving such things as free will, God’s divine plan, and the sin of questioning the ways of God in the first place.

But for others, even those that are otherwise religious, such thoughts are disturbing, precipitating a whole raft of questions they would rather not think about:  Why did God let all these bad things happen to Manny and Rose in the first place, when he could have made sure the bad guy was caught right away?  Why was a prayer necessary to bring about the miracle, and if it was, why did Manny’s previous prayers not suffice? What was God waiting for?  And given the success he had the first time, why didn’t Manny just go back to the picture of Jesus and work up another miracle to get Rose out of the mental institution right away?  (The movie says Rose was all right after a couple of years, but I have read that she never really did completely recover.)

All these questions interfere with our enjoyment of the movie.  And this is regrettable, since the movie would have been just fine with no miracle at all.

Rich and Strange (1931)

Rich and Strange is a second-rate movie, made all the more disappointing by the fact that it was directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  We expect more from Hitchcock, so we feel let down when we watch one of his inferior films.  However, this is frequently the case with his earlier efforts.  Nevertheless, I found the movie interesting because of its attitude toward love and marriage.

Fred and Emily are a married couple.  Fred is disgruntled.  He is tired of his job, the routine of domesticity, and the kind of entertainment afforded him and his wife by the radio and the movies.  Emily appears to be satisfied with their situation, but Fred is frustrated that he cannot provide for her properly.  But mostly, he wants the “good things of life.”  There is a painting of a ship that he points to, indicating that he wants adventure.  He is irritated that Emily seems so content, thinking she ought to want more.  In his exasperation, he flings something at their cat to get him off the table.  Finally, he concludes, “I think the best place for us is a gas oven.”  Needless to say, Emily is appalled, noting that they have a plenty of food and a roof over their heads.  And needless to say, Fred is not impressed.  This is a reversal from what we usually see in the movies, where it is the nagging wife who is dissatisfied and wishes her husband could make more money so that she could have nicer things.

A common plot point in a fairy tale is for someone to get his wish, only for things to go terribly wrong.  Presumably, the point is to make us content with our lot.  In any event, as in a fairy tale, a letter arrives from Fred’s uncle, who has decided to give Fred an advance on his inheritance so that he can travel and enjoy life to the full.  He and Emily set sail from England, heading first to France before eventually ending up in the Far East.

On board the ship, Fred gets seasick, leaving Emily enough free time to make friends with Commander Gordon, with whom she soon falls in love, though hesitantly.  Fred finally recovers, meets a princess, with whom he soon falls in love without any hesitation whatsoever.  He is so obvious about it that Emily forms an even stronger attachment to Gordon.

And it is here that we get the first indication that this movie has an unusual attitude toward love.  Emily asks Gordon if he has ever been in love, and he replies, “No, I can’t say that I have.”  Gordon is played by Percy Marmont, an actor who was about thirty-eight years old at the time, so we can figure that Gordon is supposed to be a man in his thirties as well.  The idea that a man could reach that age never having been in love is preposterous.  So, we have to assume that what most of us would call “love,” this movie would dismiss as puppy love, infatuation, or simply lust.  In other words, this movie has an idealistic notion of love, from which vantage point it is assumed that the only way for a (heterosexual) man to still be a bachelor in his thirties would be if either he had never truly been in love, or if his true love was unrequited, something he never completely got over.

At the same time, Emily espouses a grim view of love.  She says that because she loves Fred, she wants him to think well of her, but because he is so clever, he frequently makes her feel foolish.  In other words, he belittles her with his “cleverness.”  She goes on to say that love makes people timid.  They are frightened when they are happy and sadder when they are sad.  Everything is multiplied by two, such as sickness and death.  That’s why she is so happy with Gordon, she says, because he is not clever, and if he were to tire of talking to her and excuse himself, it would not be a big deal.  They agree that it is lucky they are not in love.  But then she concludes that love is a wonderful thing.  In other words, love justifies all the misery it puts people through, which is an essential feature of this movie’s sentimental notions of love.

Things eventually reach the point where Fred and the princess are going to run off together, and Emily is going to leave Fred and marry Gordon.  But Gordon makes the mistake of telling Emily how much he despises Fred, that he is a sham, just a “great baby masquerading as a big, strong man.”  He then goes on to mention that the “princess” is actually an adventuress who wants Fred only for his money.  That brings out Emily’s pity.  She leaves Gordon to go back to Fred, noting at one point that a wife is more than half a mother to her husband.

When she gets back to their room, she finds Fred and the princess making arrangements to leave.  Speaking sotto voce, the princess tells Emily she was a fool not to go with Gordon, for then both women would have benefited, after which she leaves, ostensibly to let Fred and Emily speak to each other alone.  Now, Gordon may have made a mistake bad mouthing Fred to Emily, but she turns around and not only tells Fred what Gordon said, but also that she realized he was telling the truth, so that’s why she came back to him.  When she repeats to Fred that Gordon said he was a sham and a bluff, Fred says he ought to smash him.  But Emily says that Gordon wouldn’t be afraid of him because he knows that Fred is a coward.  The reason she came back, she says, is that she now realizes that all along she had dressed up his faults as virtues, and that he would be lost without her.  Well, Fred would have to be the cowardly worm Emily says he is in order for him to remain married to her after she said all that.

Meanwhile, the princess takes off with £1,000 pounds of Fred’s money (about $80,000 today).  Almost broke, they catch a cheap ship to get back home, but it almost sinks and they are abandoned.  However, a Chinese junk comes along, the crew of which are intent on salvage.  Fred and Emily board the ship.  One of the crew gets tangled up in the lines, struggles, and then drowns.  The rest of the crew simply watch, with no one making a move to help him.  Back in those days, it was believed that people in the Orient were indifferent to the suffering of others, and this movie reflects that notion.

While Fred and Emily are on the Chinese junk, a woman has a baby. From the way they look at each other, there seems to be the suggestion that Fred and Emily are inspired to have a baby themselves, now that they are reconciled. Back home, Fred wonders whether they can get a “pram” (baby carriage) up the stairs, and Emily responds that they are going to have to get a bigger place anyway, presumably because they will need an extra bedroom.  So, it looks as though the baby is a done deal.

But I could not help wondering, “Whose baby is it?” The movie is not explicit about how far these two went with their philandering, although one gets the sense that Fred and the “princess” went all the way, while Emily and Gordon never went beyond kissing. But with these old movies, so much is left to the imagination that it is hard to tell.

Then again, even if we assume that Emily and Gordon did not have sex, I can’t help but wonder how long it will take Fred to start wondering whose baby it is.

And in any event, if Fred gets so irritated with their cat, what is he going to be like when the squalling baby arrives?

Are we really supposed to regard this as a happy ending?

Lifeboat (1944)

Lifeboat is a movie made during World War II, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  It begins with a freighter that was on its way from America to England, having been sunk by a German U-boat.  The captain of the U-boat gave orders to fire upon the lifeboats, after which the U-boat itself is sunk.  One lifeboat manages to survive, and one by one it is populated by British and Americans of all walks of life. Finally, Willi (Walter Slezak), a German, is pulled aboard.  Some, such as a John Kovac (John Hodiak), who worked in the engine room, want to throw the German overboard, while columnist Connie Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), radioman Stanley “Sparks” Garrett (Hume Cronyn), and industrialist Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull) (i.e., a woman and two weak men, appeasers all) argue successfully that they should let the German stay.

As the movie progresses, we see that while the British and Americans share what they have with the German, he conceals from them that he has a flask of water, some food and energy tablets, and a compass, by which he tries to steer them away from Bermuda and toward an area of the ocean occupied by German ships.  He further conceals that he was the captain of the U-boat.

Of particular interest is Gus Smith (William Bendix), who has been wounded in the leg. When we find out that he loves to dance, we know right then his leg is doomed.  Sure enough, it becomes gangrenous.  As it turns out, Willi was a surgeon before the war and says that he can amputate.  We get the sense that he enjoys the idea of removing Gus’s leg, much like the sadistic doctor in King’s Row (1942), who unnecessarily amputates the legs of Ronald Reagan.  Gus does not want to have his leg removed, saying he’d rather die than live with one leg, because he is afraid that he will lose Rosie, the girl back home whom he loves.  He fears that she might not want to marry him if he comes back without one of his legs, especially since she loves to dance as much as Gus does.  To make matters worse, Gus has a rival, Al Magaroulian, whom Rosie used to date, and who is also a good dancer, even though fallen arches have kept him out of the war.  Gus is afraid Rosie will go back to Al if he has his leg removed.  But eventually he relents, and Willi performs the surgery with no better anesthetic than brandy.

Later in the movie, while everyone is sleeping lethargically from dehydration, Gus catches Willi sipping a drink of water from his flask.  To keep Gus from telling the others about the water, Willi pushes him overboard.  When the others awaken from hearing Gus’s cries for help, they realize Gus has drowned, and they ask Willi why he didn’t do something.  Willi does not, of course, tell them that he pushed Gus overboard to keep him from talking.  Instead, he tells them that Gus voluntarily jumped overboard, and that he thought it would be best not to do anything about it:

You can’t imagine how painful it was to me.  All night long, to watch him turning and suffering and nothing I could do for him….  The best way to help him was to let him go.  I had no right to stop him, even if I wanted to.  A poor cripple dying of hunger and thirst. What good could life be to a man like that?

It probably didn’t help that earlier in the movie, when the passengers in the lifeboat were voting on whether to throw Willi overboard, he heard Gus vote to toss him into the ocean.

Then the other passengers find out about the water and food that Willi has been concealing.  They attack Willi, both the men and the women, forcing him overboard and to his death.  But one person does not take part in the attack.  It is Joe “Charcoal” Spencer (Canada Lee), an African American.  The idea seems to be that killing Willi is essentially a lynching, something that Joe would be sensitive about and find repugnant. He even tries to stop the nurse, Alice MacKenzie (Mary Anderson), from participating in the killing, though she breaks away from him.

More likely, the true motivation was external to the film, in that those who made the movie were afraid that theaters in the South would have refused to show a movie in which a black man takes part in the killing of a white man, even if that white man is a Nazi.  In fact, earlier in the movie, when they were voting on whether to throw Willi overboard, Rittenhouse asks Joe how he wants to vote. Joe asks, “Do I get to vote too?” When told that he does, he says, “Guess I’d rather stay out of this.” This too was probably to placate the South, which would have bristled at seeing Joe get to vote right alongside white people.  Instead, southern audiences were undoubtedly pleased to see that this Negro knew his place.

One of the women brought aboard the lifeboat has a baby that drowned.  Eventually, they decide to give the baby a burial at sea. The passengers know that a prayer is in order, but are not sure which one. Rittenhouse says that any prayer will do, and he begins saying Psalm 23, the one that begins, “The Lord is my shepherd….”  However, Rittenhouse begins to falter after a couple of lines. But then Joe picks up where he left off, for he knows the entire thing by heart, and finishes it reverently.  One might suppose that the movie is depicting this as something admirable, but it is actually condescending.  African Americans in the old movies were always allowed to be more religious than white people, not because they were better than white people, morally speaking, but because their lesser intelligence made it possible for them to embrace their simple beliefs with an unquestioning faith.  In movies like The Green Pastures (1936) and Imitation of Life (1934 and 1959), it is clear that their religious notions are naïve and childlike, something white people approve of in black folks with an affectionate smile, but would be incapable of taking seriously themselves.

After they kill Willi, they realize that he was the only one who knew enough and had strength enough to row them to safety. Rittenhouse says, “When we killed the German, we killed our motor.”  But Joe says, “We still got a motor,” as he looks up toward the heavens.  Rittenhouse is dismissive when he realizes Joe is talking about God.  Here again, religion enters the movie through an acceptable vehicle, through a black man, while the white people remain skeptical, thereby retaining their dignity.  All this is a prejudice of the movies I’m talking about here, not necessarily how things were in real life.

Joe is only one of two people on the boat that is married, the other being Mrs. Higley (Heather Angel), the woman with the dead baby. That leaves the way open for romantic possibilities.  Sparks ends up proposing to Alice, who had been having an affair with a married man and was miserable on account of it.  She accepts his proposal.  Kovac seems to be angry at the world, especially at Rittenhouse, who is a capitalist, while Kovac is a prole.  And he resents the fact that Connie is high class.  Little by little, she loses the symbols of her wealth, her mink and her diamond bracelet, for example.  As a woman stripped of such adornments, she might be suitable for Kovac.  Finally, it turns out that she is from the same side of the tracks as Kovac.  She uses her lipstick to put her initials on his chest, right alongside all the other initials of women tattooed on his torso.  We wish Sparks and Alice happiness with their marriage.  As for Kovac and Connie, they’d better just make it a fling.

Eventually, there is another sea battle, and it becomes clear that they will soon be picked up by an Allied ship, but not before they pull another German aboard who proves to be just as bad as Willi, though he is weak and soon overpowered, leaving the survivors to wonder, “What are you going to do with people like that?”

Yes, Nazis are evil, but are we all that good?  Consider Willi’s justification for letting Gus drown.  The lie that Willi thinks will be an acceptable justification for “allowing” Gus to drown is actually repugnant to the other survivors, who listen to his words in horror. And we who watch this movie are likewise repulsed by Willi’s callous remarks.  But now let us ask ourselves why those who made this movie (John Steinbeck, Jo Swerling, and Alfred Hitchcock) put this into the story.  We already knew Willi was evil before he killed Gus. When Mrs. Higley tells Willi he killed her baby when he ordered the lifeboats to be fired upon, Willi is so bored that he yawns and lies down to get some sleep.  She becomes so distraught that she drowns herself. But if a murder on the lifeboat was needed to really drive home the point that Willi was evil, it was not Gus that had to be killed.  It could have been Connie who saw Willi sneaking a sip of water.  When she confronts him, he snaps her neck and dumps her overboard.  That would certainly make it clear that Willi was evil!  But I suspect people would have hated that movie.

The point is that those who made this movie had a special reason for killing Gus off beyond making it clear that Willi was evil, which was overdetermined in any event. They did it to make those in the audience feel better, believing that the audience would have been uneasy if the movie had ended with Gus still alive in that lifeboat.  (It is for a similar reason that the mother with the dead baby had to commit suicide, because it would have been depressing to still have her alive at the end of the movie too.)  Sure, Rosie might not have cared about Gus’s leg, marrying him anyway because she truly loved him.  In a movie like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Hollywood could make sure that things would turn out that way.  In that movie, Cathy O’Donnell marries Harold Russell, despite the fact that both of his forearms have been replaced by prostheses, and despite the fact that her parents wanted her to break off the engagement.  But in real life, we know things do not always work out that way.  Rosie and Gus were not even engaged.  Instead of being like O’Donnell, Rosie might have tried to put a good face on the situation for a couple of months and then broken up with Gus and gone back to Al Magaroulian.  Since this movie is limited to what happens in and about that lifeboat, Hollywood could not guarantee a happy ending for Gus and Rosie, leaving the audience with dark forebodings as to what will happen when Gus gets back home.

Furthermore, the movie even indicates that Rosie will not remain true to Gus.  When Kovac and Connie try to convince Gus he needs to have his leg amputated, he refuses, saying he doesn’t want to live with just one leg.  (In a way, he is in agreement with Willi.)  Connie gives Gus a long, sentimental talk about how women are, how Rosie would be heartbroken to find that Gus allowed himself to die because he didn’t have faith in her.  Gus finally seems persuaded, but Connie turns away, saying, sotto voce, “God forgive me.”  By this we are to understand that she knows Rosie will not stick with Gus, and we know we are supposed to agree with her assessment.

And so, rather than leave the audience suspecting that Rosie would desert Gus, which would have been depressing, those who made this movie killed Gus off, allowing the audience to leave the theater feeling much better about the movie than if Gus had lived.  You might even say that Gus’s death was necessary for there to be a happy ending.  But does that not imply that those who made this movie were essentially in agreement with Willi when he asked, “What good could life be to a man like that?”  If they were right in their assessment of the audience’s reaction to an ending in which Gus is still alive, then does that not imply that the audience at that time felt the way Willi did?  Of course, there is a big difference between saying a man is better off dead and saying that the death of that man made the story better.  But both stem from the same sentiment.

And so, just as the audience gets the consolation of religion through Joe, while not being guilty of indulging in his silly superstitions, so too does the audience get the benefit of evil through Willi, while not being guilty of consciously wanting it.

Saboteur (1942) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

In the early 1940s, Alfred Hitchcock made two movies in with a common theme:  appearances can be deceiving.  The first one, Saboteur, is preposterous; the second, Shadow of a Doubt, is disturbing.

In Saboteur, Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd) sabotages the aircraft plant where he is working, but the police think Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) did it.  And so, Barry has to flee from the police in order to find Fry so he can clear himself.  Along the way, he has to kidnap Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) because she thinks he is the saboteur and would otherwise go to the police.

“You look like a saboteur,” Pat says to Barry accusatively.  Inasmuch as Barry is played by Robert Cummings, what are we to make of this remark?

First of all, there is reality. We all know that as a general rule, saboteurs do not have a distinctive look. Now, inasmuch as World War II had just broken out, I suppose that if Barry had been Japanese or German, her remark would have been appropriate. Of course, today we would call that racial profiling, but since this movie was made in 1942, she could have gotten away with it. But Barry does not appear to be either German or Japanese.  (No, I didn’t forget about the Italians, who were also one of the Axis Powers.  But as I noted in a previous review, even in World War II, Hollywood always portrayed Italians as good guys, or as gangsters who were patriotic about America.)

Second, there is type casting. A movie producer might call up an agent and say, “We’re making a spy movie. Do you have anyone who looks like a saboteur? If so, send him over for an interview.” And then the agent might send over someone like Norman Lloyd. But he would not send over Robert Cummings.

Because neither reality nor typecasting would make anyone say of Robert Cummings that he looks like a saboteur, it is odd that Pat would think that he does.  Furthermore, she has a very good reason for thinking he is a saboteur, which has nothing to do with his looks. When she first met him, she saw that he was wearing handcuffs, and she realized that he was the fugitive the police were looking for.

Actually, it is precisely because Barry does not look like a saboteur that he is able to avoid the police. Earlier in the movie, Barry is arrested.  After he gets out of the police car, he jumps from the bridge into the river below. The truck driver that had earlier given him a ride recognizes him, and he misdirects the police so that Barry can escape. Now, why would anyone do that? I would have helped the police by pointing out where Barry was hiding. All we can conclude is that the truck driver figured Barry did not look like a criminal, so he helped him escape.

Barry takes shelter in the house of a blind man, Philip Martin.  It is here that Pat makes her entrance into the movie, because she is his niece.  When she arrives at her uncle’s house shortly after Philip and Barry have become acquainted, she sees the handcuffs that her uncle already knew about on account of his acute hearing. She says he should have turned Barry in to the police. Her uncle accuses her of being cruel. He assures her that Barry is not dangerous. And besides, he argues, a man is innocent until proven guilty. Now, because Philip is blind, he obviously cannot be coming to these incredible conclusions simply on account of Barry’s looks.  However, he can hear the sound of Barry’s voice, and by virtue of that kind of appearance, Philip tells Pat that he can see intangible things like innocence.

Pat pretends to go along with what her uncle wants, which is to take Barry to a blacksmith to get the handcuffs off, but she tries to take him to the police instead. That doesn’t work, however, and after some complications, they find themselves in the company of some circus freaks. Some of them want to turn Barry over to the police, who are inspecting the circus trucks, but the deciding vote is the bearded lady who blathers about how fine it is that Pat has stuck with Barry through his difficulties, and therefore they must be good people. This makes about as much sense as when earlier a man and a woman saw Barry kidnap Pat, dragging her into the car against her will, and the woman said, “My, they must be terribly in love.”

What these three instances—that of the truck driver, Uncle Philip, and the freaks—have in common is that appearances, in one form or another, make people decide to thwart the police and help the fugitive. Toward the end of the movie, Tobin (Otto Krüger), one of the villains, says of Barry that he is noble, fine, and pure, and that is why he is misjudged by everyone. But save for the police, Barry is not misjudged by others. The point of this remark is to show just how much evil foreigners underestimate Americans. The idea is that Americans, being basically noble, fine, and pure, can readily see the goodness in others, which is why they are willing to help a fugitive from justice escape from the police: they can just tell from Barry’s appearance that he is noble, fine, and pure.  Of course, Otto Krüger is of German descent, which is why he was selected to play this part.

If this movie had been intended to alert Americans of the danger of enemy agents in their midst during World War II, it would have cast against type, letting Otto Krüger or Norman Lloyd play Barry, the innocent man, and letting Robert Cummings play Frank Fry, the saboteur, or Tobin, the chief villain.  Then the movie would have driven home the point that you cannot tell by a person’s appearances whether he is good or evil.  In such a movie, Pat’s remark that Barry looks like a saboteur would make sense, but the truck driver, Uncle Philip, and the circus freaks would have to be suspicious of Barry instead of trusting.  Instead, the movie seems intended to assure the wartime audience that they could just rely on appearances, which is a much more comforting notion.

We cannot completely blame Hitchcock for all this, because he thought Robert Cummings was wrong for the role, on account of his “comic face.”  And perhaps it was in reaction to the casting of this movie that he decided to make Shadow of a Doubt (1943) the next year, in in which appearances, instead of being dependable, turn out to be deceptive.  In this movie, Joseph Cotten plays Charlie Oakley, a man that murders rich widows.  Needless to say, audiences in 1943 watching a movie about a serial killer would have expected to see someone like Laird Cregar, not Joseph Cotten.

The weakest part of Shadow of a Doubt is the part that involves the detectives. Nothing really makes sense. They want a picture of Oakley so they can show it to witnesses to see if he is the Merry Widow serial killer. All they need to do is bring him in for questioning and take his picture. Failing that, they could have photographed him when he walked right toward them at the beginning of the movie. After he walks past them, they follow him. What for? Do they think that by following him, they will catch him in the act of killing another widow? I could go on, but what would be the point? Suffice it to say that everything involving these detectives is unrealistic. And it is a shame, because with a few changes in the script, they could have been left out entirely.

It is the rest of the movie, the parts where the detectives play no significant role, that the movie really engages us. When the it begins, it is clear that Oakley has just killed another widow, after first getting his hands on her money. But it is not the money he cares about. He hates these women, and it gives him great satisfaction to kill them. But now, thoroughly sated from his recent murder, he is weary, listlessly lying in bed, with some of the money carelessly allowed to fall on the floor. He finally decides to visit his sister and sends her a telegram.

Meanwhile, his niece, young Charlie (Teresa Wright), is first seen lying supine in bed in a way that matches her uncle when we first saw him, giving us just a hint of incest. Her fascination with her uncle is a little unsettling in this regard. They both have the same name, and she is convinced that they are alike, that they have a special connection between them. At first, she too is listless, as her uncle was, but she suddenly decides to send him a telegram, inviting him to visit them, right after he has sent her mother a telegram saying that he is coming.

When her uncle arrives, he gives Charlie a ring, which has an engraving on the inside, “T.S. from B.M.” Later, she reads in the paper that the initials of the deceased husband of a recently murdered widow were “B.M.” Both “T.S” and “B.M.” are abbreviations for expressions involving fecal matter, “tough shit” and “bowel movement” respectively, which is a way of suggesting something foul associated with the beautiful emerald ring. The evil hidden underneath beauty is the theme of this movie.

In a similar way, the town where young Charlie lives is one of those warm, wholesome towns, representing the goodness of America, and good-looking Uncle Charlie is the evil hidden within that town. But that is not the most disturbing example of this theme. We find such evil in young Charlie herself. As the movie keeps emphasizing, and as she keeps insisting, she and her Uncle Charlie are very much alike. And that means that she has her dark side too. Because young Charlie is played by Teresa Wright, a wholesome looking young woman, rather than an actress whom we might see playing a femme fatale in a film noir, the contrast between her innocent appearance and the evil within her is stark.

When she figures out that her uncle is the Merry Widow murderer, she does not turn the ring over to the police and tell them what she knows. Instead, she merely insists that he leave town, so that her mother will not be hurt by the knowledge of what her brother really is. And she does this even when she knows who his next victim will be, a widow he meets in town, and who will be leaving on the same train. This would have made her an accomplice to his next and subsequent murders had he simply left town as she wanted.

In another scene, she tells her uncle that she wants to kill him. And so she does. The scene in which she pushes him into the path of the oncoming train can be understood as merely the accidental result of her effort to get away from him, and it would have been an act of self-defense in any event. But what happens matches what she says she wanted to do. Of course, there is no way her dark side is anything like that of her uncle, the main difference being that her uncle had a head injury when he was young, which allowed his dark side to flourish. But the evil in her is there nevertheless. And so, the movie seems to say, in all of us.

The 39 Steps (1935)

With The 39 Steps, Alfred Hitchcock hit upon a formula that was so good he used it twice more, in Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959):  an innocent man inadvertently gets mixed up with some spies who kill someone, for which the innocent man is blamed and sought by the police, forcing him to hunt down the spies in order to prove his innocence.  In this case, Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is the innocent man.  When the movie begins, he is at a show where “Mr. Memory” (Wylie Watson) performs, demonstrating his photographic memory.  Suddenly, shots are fired, causing a panic.  Outside, a strange woman, Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), latches on to Hannay, saying she wants to go home with him.  He shrugs and says, “It’s your funeral,” figuring they are going to have sex, although his words turn out to be an ironic prophecy.

Once they get to his flat, he finds out that she is not there for sex, but to hide from some spies (it was she who fired the shots to elude them).  It turns out that she is a freelance spy herself, willing to sell information to either side, but presently having information she intends to sell to the British, which has something to do with “the 39 steps,” but which she does not explain.  The next morning, she awakens Hannay as she dies from a knife in the back, holding a map in her hands.  Now he is in danger from the spies on account of what he knows, which isn’t much, and in danger from the police, who conclude that Miss Smith was murdered by Hannay.

I said that Hannay is an innocent man, but only in the sense that he is not guilty of the murder of Annabella.  However, he is guilty of a peccadillo, that of allowing himself to be picked up by a strange woman, and the rest of the movie may be thought of as excessive punishment for this little sin.

All sorts of twists and complications arise as Hannay plunges from situation to situation, but midway through the movie, he ends up being handcuffed by the spies to Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), who thinks Hannay is the murderer.  They escape from the spies but are forced to remain together.

It is often said that in old movies, even husbands and wives had to sleep in twin beds, and if both got on the same bed, at least one foot of one person had to be on the floor. Actually, if that was a rule, it was never written down, because it is nowhere to be found in the Production Code. And if it was a rule, it was not followed in this 1935 movie, because Hannay and Pamela get in a double bed and spend the night with all four feet on the bed. Part of the reason may have to do with the fact that the movie was made in the United Kingdom. Maybe their censorship rules were different, and America just went along. Also, it probably helped that since Pamela is antagonistic to Hannay, sleeping with him only because of the handcuffs, there is not the slightest suggestion that they will have sex with each other.

Finally, it turns out that the spies use Mr. Memory to memorize secret documents, which he can give to the enemy by traveling to their country.  In that way, there is no risk of being caught trying to smuggle out of England pieces of paper with the secret information on them.  At the end of the movie, Hannay calls out to Mr. Memory during a performance, asking, “What are the 39 steps?” to which Mr. Memory begins to answer that it is an organization of spies.  However,  he is shot, thereby leading to the capture of the man who killed him, who heads the organization of spies. We have to wonder why Mr. Memory started answering the question. We suspect there are two reasons: first, Mr. Memory was a somewhat unwilling participant in the spy ring (blackmail?), and took the opportunity to reveal what had been going on; and second, his pride in being able to answer any factual question that was put to him made him unable to say, “I don’t know.”

But that started me thinking. This is not the only Hitchcock movie in which a villain blurts out the truth even though in so doing he provides information that could or does lead to his undoing. In Spellbound (1945), Constance (Ingrid Bergman) gets her colleague, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), to help her figure out the meaning of a dream, which he does, thereby incriminating himself. In Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton), the Merry Widow murderer, vehemently expresses his disgust for foolish widows at the dinner table. In Frenzy (1972), Blaney (Jon Finch) is being hunted by the police for being the Necktie Strangler. He turns to Rusk (Barry Foster) for help, not realizing that Rusk himself is the Necktie Strangler. While they are talking, Rusk says with a hostile tone in his voice that some of these women who are raped and murdered get exactly what is coming to them, but Blaney is too distracted to notice.

And come to think of it, I suppose we all have had moments when we blurted out something incriminating, when we could have simply kept our big mouths shut.

Saboteur (1942) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

“Let’s see,” you are saying to yourself, “which Hitchcock movie was Saboteur?”  That was the one where the bad guy is hanging from the Statue of Liberty until he loses his grip and falls to his death.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, the bad guy’s name is Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd).  The movie begins in an airplane factory during World War II.  At the end of the day shift, Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) and his friend Ken Mason are heading to the counter where food is served when they bump into Fry, who spills his mail on the floor.  Barry picks it up to give it to him, but Fry is surly and unappreciative.  As Fry walks off, Barry sees a hundred-dollar bill that was left behind. Remembering the name he saw on the envelope, he finds Fry to give it back to him, but Fry takes the money without saying anything in the way of thanks.

Suddenly, fire breaks out where the planes are painted.  They all rush to that area.  Fry hands Barry the fire extinguisher, but Mason takes it from him and runs toward the fire.  We see Mason being consumed in an inferno.  It turns out that the extinguisher was filled with gasoline.

When interviewed by the police, Barry tells them what happened, but when it turns out there is no record of a Frank Fry working at the plant, they suspect that it was Barry that started the fire and knowingly handed Mason the gasoline-filled extinguisher. Barry gets away before the police can arrest him.  He decides he must find Fry to prove that he exists, thereby clearing himself of the charge.

It is a familiar trope, the innocent man eluding the police so that he can clear himself by bringing the guilty party to justice.  Has anything like that ever happened in real life? I doubt it.  But no matter how unrealistic that may be, it works quite well in the movies. And while on the subject of what is not realistic, I must say that there was absolutely no reason for Fry to hand Barry the extinguisher. Whoever got there first would pick up that extinguisher himself, there being no need for Fry to make sure that it happened. He should have been heading for the exit while everyone else was preoccupied.

Along the way, in his search for Fry, Barry has to kidnap Pat Martin (Priscilla Lane) because she thinks he is the saboteur, and she would otherwise go to the police. “You look like a saboteur,” Pat says to Barry accusatively. Inasmuch as Barry is played by Robert Cummings, what are we to make of this remark?

First of all, there is reality. We all know that as a general rule, saboteurs do not have a distinctive look. Now, inasmuch as World War II had just broken out, I suppose that if Barry had been Japanese or German (someone with blond hair and a slight accent), her remark would have been appropriate. But Barry does not appear to be either German or Japanese.  (No, I didn’t forget about the Italians, who were also one of the Axis Powers. But even in World War II, Hollywood always portrayed Italians as patriotic Americans, even if they were gangsters.)

Second, there is typecasting. A movie producer might call up Central Casting and say, “We’re making a spy movie. Do you have anyone who looks like a saboteur? If so, send him over for an interview.” And then they might send over someone like Norman Lloyd.

Or they might send over Alan Baxter, who plays Mr. Freeman, another saboteur. Baxter often played sinister characters, but in this movie, he is also effeminate, presumably a homosexual.  When this movie was made, explicit references to homosexuality were forbidden by the Production Code, so movies had to be content with queer flashes.  Believing Barry to be a fellow spy, Freeman talks to him about his family:

Freeman:  Sometimes I wish my younger child had been a girl.  In fact, my wife and I argue over a little idiosyncrasy I have.  I don’t want his hair cut short until he’s much older.  Do you think it’d be bad for him?

Barry:  I don’t know.  It might be.

Freeman:  When I was a child, I had long golden curls.  People used to stop to admire me.

Barry:  Things are different nowadays.  A haircut might save him a lot of grief.

Back when this movie was made, anyone who appeared to be a homosexual was either a weakling or a villain, both of which apply to Freeman.  In any event, when asked to send over someone that looked like a saboteur, Central Casting might send over Normal Lloyd or Alan Baxter, but they would not send over Robert Cummings.

Because neither reality nor typecasting would make anyone say of Robert Cummings that he looks like a saboteur, it is odd that Pat would say that he does.  Furthermore, she has a very good reason for thinking he is a saboteur, which has nothing to do with his looks. When she first met him, she saw that he was wearing handcuffs, and she realized that he was the fugitive the police were looking for.

Actually, it is precisely because Barry does not look like a saboteur that he is able to avoid the police. Earlier in the movie, Barry is arrested.  After he bolts from the police car when it had to come to a stop, he jumps from the bridge into the river below. The truck driver that had earlier given him a ride recognizes him, and he misdirects the police so that Barry can escape, giving Barry an “OK” hand signal. Now, why would he do that? I would have helped the police by pointing out where Barry was hiding. All we can conclude is that the truck driver figured Barry did not look like a criminal, so he helped him escape.

Barry takes shelter in the house of a blind man, Philip Martin.  It is here that Pat makes her entrance into the movie, because she is his niece.  When she arrives at her uncle’s house shortly after Philip and Barry have become acquainted, she sees the handcuffs that her uncle already knew about on account of his acute hearing. She says he should have turned Barry in to the police. Her uncle accuses her of being cruel. He assures her that Barry is not dangerous. And besides, he argues, a man is innocent until proven guilty. (That’s a nice piece of circular reasoning:  since he hasn’t been proven guilty, he is innocent; and an innocent man shouldn’t be turned over to the police.)  Now, because Philip is blind, he obviously cannot be coming to these incredible conclusions simply on account of Barry’s looks.  However, he can hear the sound of Barry’s voice, and by virtue of that kind of appearance, Philip tells Pat that he can see intangible things like innocence.

Pat pretends to go along with what her uncle wants, which is to take Barry to a blacksmith to get the handcuffs off, but she tries to take him to the police instead. That doesn’t work, however, and after some complications, they find themselves in the company of some circus freaks. Some of them want to turn Barry over to the police, who are inspecting the circus trucks, but the deciding vote belongs to the bearded lady, who blathers about how fine it is that Pat has stuck with Barry through his difficulties, and therefore they must be good people; much in the way, I suppose, that we know that Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were good people on account of the way Bonnie stuck with Clyde through his difficulties too.  It makes about as much sense as when earlier a man and a woman saw Barry kidnap Pat, dragging her into a car against her will, and the woman said, “My, they must be terribly in love.”  Apparently, Barry doesn’t look like a rapist or a serial killer either.

What these three instances—that of the truck driver, the blind man, and the bearded lady—have in common is that appearances, in one form or another, make people decide to thwart the police and help the fugitive. Toward the end of the movie, Charles Tobin (Otto Krüger), one of the villains, says of Barry that he is noble, fine, and pure, and that is why he is misjudged by everyone. But save for the police, who are simply going by what evidence they have, Barry is not misjudged by others. The point of this mistaken remark is to show just how much evil foreigners underestimate Americans. The idea is that Americans, being basically noble, fine, and pure, can readily see the goodness in others, which is why they are willing to help a fugitive from justice escape from the police: they can just tell from Barry’s appearance that he is noble, fine, and pure.  Of course, Otto Krüger is of German descent, which is why he was selected to play this part.

There is one point in this movie where Barry’s appearance works against him.  He and Pat end up at a charity affair being given by a Mrs. Sutton, a wealthy woman that is also one of the spies.  It is here that the conversation with Tobin occurs.  Barry and Pat manage to escape onto the dance floor, where there are a lot of people that do not realize that Mrs. Sutton and Mr. Tobin are spies.  But when Barry tries to tell one of the guests that “the whole house is a hotbed of spies and saboteurs,” he is dismissed out of hand.  You see, it’s a formal affair, and as the guest points out to Barry, who is just wearing a suit, “You’re not even dressed.”  It all goes to show that ordinary citizens like the truck driver, the blind man, and the bearded lady are the real backbone of this country, while the snooty rich are more concerned with maintaining their privileges over the rabble than in protecting this country from the enemy.

There is a scene where Fry and his fellow saboteurs try to sink a ship as it is being launched.  It appears that Barry has thwarted him.  But later, while Fry is in a car, he looks out the window and sees a ship lying on its side in the water.  As long as that shot was going to be in the movie, Hitchcock should have let it appear that Fry was successful in his second act of sabotage.  Instead, we find ourselves wondering, “Well, did he sink that ship or not?”

That he might have sunk that ship led to objections on the part of the War Department, and Hitchcock said that the Navy opposed having this scene in the movie because it made it look as though they failed to do their job in protecting that ship.  So, while the government is printing posters that say, “Loose lips sink ships,” that same government doesn’t want us to think that ships actually get sunk.

This is followed by a scene in which Fry, in his effort to escape, runs into a movie theater.  Just as he starts firing his gun, someone in the movie starts firing his gun, making it difficult to tell which shots are real and which are part of the movie.

So, what with Pat’s initial reluctance to believe that Barry is innocent, the man at the ball refusing to believe Barry because he is not formally attired, and this scene in the theater, there are some gestures in this movie toward the message that appearances can be deceiving.  But overall, the casting works against this message, reassuring us that you can tell just by looking who is noble, fine, and pure on the one hand, and who is base, gross, and adulterated on the other.

If this movie had been intended to alert Americans of the danger of enemy agents in their midst during World War II, it would have cast against type, letting Otto Krüger, Norman Lloyd, or Alan Baxter play Barry, the innocent man, and letting Robert Cummings play one of the spies.  Then the movie would have driven home the point that you cannot tell by a person’s appearance whether he is good or evil.  Let’s imagine Norman Lloyd playing the role of Barry, the innocent man.  In such a movie, Pat’s remark that Barry looks like a saboteur would make sense, and the truck driver, the blind man, and the bearded lady would be suspicious of Barry instead of trusting. Finally, when the married couple see Barry dragging Pat into the car, they would immediately call the police.  Instead, the movie seems intent on assuring the wartime audience that they can just rely on appearances, which is a much more comforting notion.

Hitchcock complained about being forced to use Robert Cummings in this movie, thinking him wrong for the role, on account of his comic face.  Given this insistence on the part of Universal that he use Cummings in this movie, Hitchcock should have turned this fait accompli into an asset by making him be the saboteur.

Perhaps it was in reaction to the simplistic casting of that movie that he decided to make Shadow of a Doubt the next year, in in which appearances, instead of being dependable, turn out to be deceptive. In this movie, Joseph Cotten plays Charles “Charlie” Oakley, a man who murders rich widows. Needless to say, audiences in 1943, watching a movie about a serial killer, would have expected to see someone like Laird Cregar in the role of the killer, not Joseph Cotten.

As we watch the opening credits, the music we hear is “The Merry Widow Waltz,” played with just a hint of discord, while we see good-looking men dancing with older women.  The music is from The Merry Widow, an operetta about a woman who has inherited a lot of money from her deceased husband.  It was composed in 1905, and it was based on a play first performed in 1861.  The idea of a merry widow was the exact opposite of what was expected in those days.  In Gone with the Wind, after Scarlett’s first husband has died, she is miserable; not because he died, for she never loved him, but because of what she realizes is now required of her:

She was a widow and her heart was in the grave.  At least everyone thought it was in the grave and expected her to act accordingly….  Not for her the pleasures of unmarried girls.  She had to be grave and aloof….  The conduct of a widow must be twice as circumspect as that of a matron.

“And God only knows,” thought Scarlett…, “matrons never have any fun at all.  So widows might as well be dead.”

… Widows could never chatter vivaciously or laugh aloud.  Even when they smiled, it must be a sad, tragic smile.  And most dreadful of all, they could in no way indicate an interest in the company of gentlemen.  And should a gentleman be so ill bred as to indicate an interest in her, she must freeze him with a dignified but well-chosen reference to her dead husband.  Oh, yes, thought Scarlett, drearily, some widows do marry eventually, when they are old and stringy.  Though Heaven knows how they manage it, with their neighbors watching.

It must have been a great comfort to men in those days to know that in the event of their death, their wives could never again be truly happy.  And it must have been a comfort to married women as well, for they would have fumed at the idea that should some other woman happen to become a widow, she would be free once again to enjoy the pleasures of being single.

And if a merry widow should also be rich, like the one in the operetta, that would only add to the feelings of resentment, for it would bring to mind the idea of a husband who works hard, accumulates a sizable fortune, and then dies at an early age; after which, the wife, having gotten her hands on all that money, foolishly squanders it on some good-looking young man that will flatter her with attention.

Solon said that you should count no man happy until he is dead, for it is only then, in the words of Aristotle, that he is “beyond the reach of evils and misfortune.”  But as Aristotle goes on to say, we may even be reluctant to say that a man had a happy life if, after he dies, he is dishonored in some way. Though Aristotle does not give this as an example, yet the idea that a widow might fritter away her deceased husband’s entire fortune on some silly gigolo could be just the sort of thing Aristotle had in mind. In fact, the thoughts a man might have of his wife cavorting in this manner after he is dead might just drive him to an early grave.

I remember my mother telling me that the reason a man might be reluctant to buy life insurance is that he can’t stand the idea that his wife will spend all that money on some boyfriend.  And, as a matter of fact, six months after my father died, my mother got herself a facelift.  Another woman I knew had for years chafed under her husband’s insistence that they buy used cars only, drive them until they dropped, after which he would buy another used car. But when he died, she put him in the ground, and then went right out and bought herself a brand new luxury automobile.  “I earned it,” she said.  I’ve always thought of that line as being the divorced woman’s mantra, but I guess it works for widows too.

And then there was the suggestion of sexual license.  As they used to say in the days before the sexual revolution, once the pie has been cut, there’s no harm in helping yourself to another piece. Therefore, it was expected that a widow might more readily give in to her passions than would a maiden of younger years. In Horse Feathers (1932), Groucho Marx becomes president of a college, where his son, who has been in that college for twelve years, is “fooling around with the college widow.” Groucho tells him he’s ashamed of him, saying, “I went to three colleges in twelve years and fooled around with three college widows.”  Now, a college at that time might have denied admission to a divorced woman, a shameful status in those days.  But a widow was more to be pitied than censured.  Her innocence had to be presumed by those considering her admission to a college, even if suspicions lurked to the contrary; for her knowledge of the delights of sexual intimacy would no doubt leave her lusting for more.

In a lot of the Marx Brothers movies, Groucho would pursue some rich widow for her money, and more often than not, that widow would be played by Margaret Dumont.  She was in her late forties or fifties when these movies were made, and she had a matronly appearance.  Moreover, she was little bigger and taller than Groucho.  This made them a comic couple.  But in Horse Feathers, the college widow was supposed to be a threat to campus morality on account of her being sexually desirable and accessible, for which reason the role was played by Thelma Todd.

These negative attitudes toward widows are harbored by Charles Oakley.  Later in the movie, while sitting at the dinner table with his sister and her family, he compares women in a small town with those in the big city:

Women keep busy in towns like this. In the cities it’s different. Middle-aged widows, husbands dead, husbands who’ve spent their lives making fortunes, working and working, and then they die and leave their money to their wives, their silly wives. And what do the wives do, these useless women? You see them in the best hotels every day by the thousands, drinking the money, eating the money, losing the money at bridge, playing all day and all night, smelling of money. Proud of their jewelry, but of nothing else. Horrible, faded, fat, greedy women.

The weakest parts of Shadow of a Doubt are the scenes that involve the detectives, none of which make any sense. They want a picture of Oakley so they can show it to witnesses to see if he is the Merry Widow Killer. All they need to do is bring him in for questioning and take his picture, not to mention putting him in a lineup. Failing that, they could have photographed him when he walked right toward them at the beginning of the movie. Furthermore, they had previously told his landlady that they wanted to talk to him, so why didn’t they talk to him right there on the street?  After he walks past them, they follow him. What for? Do they think that by following him, they will catch him in the act of killing another widow? I could go on, but what would be the point? Suffice it to say that everything involving these detectives is not just unrealistic, for every movie is that to some degree, but distractingly so, and to an extent that interferes with our ability to suspend disbelief and immerse ourselves in the story. And it is a shame, because with a few changes in the script, they could have been left out entirely.

It is the rest of the movie, the parts where the detectives play no significant role, that the movie really engages us. When it begins, it is clear that Oakley has just killed another widow, after first getting his hands on her money. But it is not the money he cares about. He hates these women, and it gives him great satisfaction to kill them. But now, thoroughly sated from his recent murder, he is weary, listlessly lying in bed, with some of the money carelessly allowed to fall on the floor. He finally decides to visit his sister and sends her a telegram, ending it with “and a kiss for little Charlie from her Uncle Charlie.”

This “little Charlie,” his niece Charlotte Newton, (Teresa Wright), is first seen lying supine in bed in a way that matches her uncle when we first saw him.  At first, she too is listless, as her uncle was, but she suddenly decides to send him a telegram, inviting him to come for a visit, right after he has sent her mother a telegram saying that he is coming.  On my own, I would never have thought of these scenes as indicating anything other than an affinity between an uncle and his niece.  However, several critics have noted that these matching bed scenes are a suggestion of incest. Young Charlie’s fascination with her uncle is a little unsettling in this regard. She places importance on the fact that they both have the same first name, at least in the diminutive form, and she is convinced that they are alike, that they have a special connection between them, a common fancy of someone in love. And she acts like a girl in love.

When her uncle arrives, Charlie let’s him sleep in her bed.  Now, don’t get excited. She moves to the room of her precocious, younger sister Ann, where there is an unused twin bed.  But if subliminal desires of incest are being suggested in this movie, her letting Uncle Charlie sleep in her bed is another hint.

That evening, he gives young Charlie a ring, not realizing it has an engraving on the inside, “T.S. from B.M.” Later, she reads in the newspaper that the initials of the deceased husband of a recently murdered widow were “B.M.” Both “T.S.” and “B.M.” are abbreviations for expressions involving feces, “tough shit” and “bowel movement” respectively, which is a way of suggesting something foul associated with the emerald ring. The ugliness hidden underneath beauty is the theme of this movie.

In a similar way, the town where young Charlie lives is one of those warm, wholesome towns, representing the goodness of America.  But Uncle Charlie says these appearances are deceiving.  Later in the movie, after young Charlie has figured out that her uncle is the Merry Widow Killer, he says the rest of the world, including the town where she lives, is no better than he is:

You’re just an ordinary little girl, living in an ordinary little town.  You wake up every day and know there’s nothing in the world to trouble you.  You go through your ordinary little day.  At night, you sleep your ordinary sleep, filled with peaceful, stupid dreams.  And I brought you nightmares.  Or did l?  Or was it a silly, inexpert, little lie?  You live in a dream. You’re a sleepwalker, blind.  How do you know what the world is like?  Do you know the world is a foul sty?  Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses, you’d find swine?  The world’s a hell.  What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie.  Use your wits. Learn something!

And what Uncle Charlie says of the world applies to young Charlie herself.  As the movie keeps emphasizing, and as young Charlie keeps insisting, she and her uncle Charlie are very much alike, “like twins” she tells him. The idea that her uncle is her evil twin comes to mind, but she has her dark side too, as becomes clear later in the movie. Because young Charlie is played by Teresa Wright, a wholesome-looking young woman, rather than an actress whom we might see playing a femme fatale in a film noir, the contrast between her innocent appearance and the evil that emerges from within her is stark.

Earlier in the movie, while young Charlie is still blissfully unaware that Uncle Charlie is the Merry Widow Killer, she is so psychically in tune with him that she starts humming “The Merry Widow Waltz,” while setting the table for dinner.  But she can’t seem to remember the name of the melody. Ann says, “Sing at the table, you’ll marry a crazy husband.” This may be another incest hint.  Young Charlie is pleased when some of her friends think Uncle Charlie is her beau.  And as Uncle Charlie is crazy, perhaps he is the man she unconsciously wants for a husband.

Instead of just letting her recall the name of the waltz, Uncle Charlie purposely spills his wine just as she is on the verge of uttering it.  Later, when he sees an article in the newspaper about the Merry Widow Killer, he tears that section out.  Discovering this, she concludes that there must have been something in the paper he wanted to conceal, though she imagines it to be of minor importance. She tells her uncle she knows a secret about him, referring to something that must have been in the newspaper, and reprising an earlier remark she had made:  “I have a feeling that inside you somewhere, there’s something nobody knows about.”  She thinks the secret is something wonderful, but he becomes alarmed, charging at her and grabbing her wrists so hard that he hurts her.  His guilty behavior arouses young Charlie’s suspicions, causing her to go to the library, where she finds the article mentioned above.  This leads to his downfall. Had he not done these things, she might never have suspected anything at all.

Murdering widows for their money appears to be quite remunerative, inasmuch as Uncle Charlie deposits $40,000 in the bank (over $650,000, adjusted for inflation).  As he is leaving the bank, he is introduced to another rich widow, a Mrs. Potter.  She has come to the bank to get some money so she can go shopping. “There’s one good thing in being a widow, isn’t there?” she says laughing.  “You don’t have to ask your husband for money.”

When young Charlie figures out that her uncle is the Merry Widow Killer, she does not turn the ring over to the detectives and tell them what she knows, because she is afraid it will hurt her mother to find this out about her brother.  Many of those same critics that noticed the theme of incest have also argued that the relationships in this movie constitute an allegory of sexual abuse within a family, one in which a girl feels she cannot tell her mother that her father is molesting her.  Only instead of the daughter not wanting her mother to know the truth, too often it is the mother that does not want to know the truth when her daughter tries to tell her.  Here too, on my own, that would never have occurred to me, but it does seem to resonate, now that it has been brought to my attention.

And so, instead of telling the detectives, she tries to get Uncle Charlie to leave town, hinting at first, but then becoming more insistent.  He quickly picks up on the fact that she knows.  It is then that he makes the remarks about widows quoted above.  Young Charlie defends them:  “But they’re alive. They’re human beings.”  Uncle Charlie replies:

Are they? Are they, Charlie? Are they human, or are they fat, wheezing animals? Hm? And what happens to animals when they get too fat and too old?

While all this has been going on, young Charlie’s father, Joseph (Henry Travers), and a next-door neighbor, Herb (Hume Cronyn), who lives with his mother and is always coming over while the Newton family is having dinner, enjoy discussing the murder mysteries they have read in books. Joseph thinks the best way to kill someone is by hitting him over the head with a lead pipe, but Herb objects to that form of murder because then you don’t have any clues.  Joseph says he doesn’t want any clues, of course, but Herb has confused getting away with a murder in real life with committing a murder that would make a good mystery.  As a result, he prefers exotic poisons.  The fun they have discussing murder mysteries unnerves young Charlie, who is trying to deal with the real murders committed by her uncle.

At the same time, the detectives have confided in young Charlie that her uncle is one of two suspects they have been investigating.  They are pretty sure her uncle is their man, but out of consideration for her mother, they agree to arrest her uncle out of town, if Charlie can get him to leave soon.  But then, the other suspect ends up being killed when, in the act of fleeing from the police, he runs into the propeller of an airplane. Uncle Charlie and young Charlie overhear Joseph and Herb talking about it.  Herb says they had to identify the suspect, who was all chopped up, by his clothes.  “His shirts were all initialed,” Herb says, “‘C,’ ‘O,’ apostrophe ‘H’.”

We have already seen that the initials on the ring were abbreviations for feces, so I wondered if these initials were supposed to have significance, especially since the dialogue gives them emphasis. That is, the scriptwriter could simply have had Herb say, “They identified him by the initials on his shirts,” without specifying which initials they were.  But other than the fact that “C” and “O” are also Charles Oakley’s initials, and “CO” is the symbol for carbon monoxide, which soon comes into play, not much comes to mind.  I suppose the “H” could stand for Hitchcock, another cameo of a sort.

One might also ask why the scriptwriters chose this form of death for the other suspect, one that involves mutilation.  The reason is that had he died, say, by being hit by an automobile, the detectives could have photographed him, thereby allowing his picture to be shown to witnesses for identification.  And so, this absurd idea that the detectives cannot photograph Charles Oakley against his will, unless they are sneaky about it, is being applied to this other suspect as well.

Once Uncle Charlie hears that the police have called off the investigation because they think the Merry Widow Killer is dead, he is delighted.  But then he remembers that he had all but admitted to being the killer when young Charlie confronted him.  He sets out to murder her to make sure she doesn’t talk.  His first attempt is by loosening part of a step on the stairway she often uses, but she catches herself when it gives way. The second attempt is with carbon monoxide, by trapping her in the garage with the motor of the family car running. Fortunately, Herb hears her screams and alerts her family to her situation.

Notwithstanding young Charlie’s plea that these widows are “human beings,” in the end, she cares more about protecting her mother from any unhappiness than she does the lives of Uncle Charlie’s future victims.  She insists that he leave town, with the threat of giving the ring to the police, even when she knows who his next victim will be, the Mrs. Potter mentioned above, the rich widow he met in town.  In fact, Mrs. Potter is sitting right there in the living room of young Charlie’s home, and she will be leaving on the same train as Uncle Charlie. This would have made young Charlie an accomplice to his next and subsequent murders had he simply left town as she wanted.  We can imagine her reading in the newspaper about his murders of widows in the future, but still remaining silent, her mother’s feelings being more important to her than the women being strangled by Uncle Charlie.

In another scene, she tells him, “Go away, or I’ll kill you myself.” And so she does. The scene in which she pushes him into the path of the oncoming train can be understood as merely the accidental result of her effort to get away from him, and it would have been an act of self-defense in any event. But what happens matches what she says she would do. Of course, there is no way her dark side is anything like that of her uncle, the reason being that her uncle had a head injury when he was young.  He skidded on his bicycle and was hit by a streetcar, much in the way he has now been hit by a train.  It was this earlier accident that allowed his dark side to flourish, instead of being held in check the way it is for young Charlie.  Or the way it is for the rest of us, for that matter.

Still, I wonder what she told her mother when they scraped Uncle Charlie’s body off the railroad tracks.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The Lady Vanishes (1938) was released a little less than a year before the outbreak of World War II, but about a month after the signing of the Munich Agreement.  British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared that with this document, he had secured “peace for our time.”  This will forever be despised as an act of appeasement, although I can’t say that I share that sentiment. Though Alfred Hitchcock, who directed this movie, is primarily concerned with entertaining us, yet one suspects that the movie is also being presented as a cautionary tale against such appeasement, against pacifism and complacency.

The movie begins in the fictitious, Germanic-sounding country of Bandrika, which is ruled by a dictator.  A bunch of people planning on traveling by train are waiting in a hotel lobby, two of whom are Charters and Caldicott, portrayed by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, a comedy team that began life with this movie. As they wait, they express their concerns about the last report they heard, “England on the brink.”  From their conversation, we wonder if England is on the verge of going to war.  Eventually, we find out that they are worried about a cricket match.  Pace the British, cricket is a sport the rest of the world thinks is ludicrous.  And the obsession with cricket on the part of the characters that Radford and Wayne subsequently played in other movies became a trademark gag. From time to time, we see them reading about that cricket match on the back pages of the newspaper, while the serious political news on the front page is ignored. They represent the dangerous complacency of the British people.

On account of an avalanche, the train cannot continue on its way, so everyone has to seek accommodations at the hotel.  Charters and Caldicott are forced to occupy the maid’s quarters, consisting of a narrow bed intended for just one person.  The maid, Anna, is an attractive woman, though slightly bigger than either of the two men, whom she looks at flirtatiously when she finds out they will be sleeping in her room, much to their discomfiture.  Apparently, one of the two men sleeps in pajamas and the other does not.  For the sake of modesty, presumably, they share the pajamas, Charters wearing the tops; Caldicott, the bottoms.  At one point, when the two men are squeezed into the bed, Anna barges right in to put her hat back under the bed and to retrieve some other articles of clothing.  Charters moves his body in front of Caldicott so that Anna can’t see his nipples.

Earlier, when three young American women seem to be getting the royal treatment by the hotel manager, Caldicott dryly remarks, “the almighty dollar.”  One of the women, Iris (Margaret Lockwood), is soon to be married.  A friend proposes a toast, “To Iris, and the happy days she’s leaving behind, and the blue-blooded cheque chaser she’s dashing to London to marry.”

It’s an old story, a rich American woman marrying an impecunious British aristocrat for the sake of a title and a coat of arms, which apparently is more important to her father than it is to her.  She refers to herself as being an “offering on an altar.”  Love is not involved, but that doesn’t bother her, saying that she’s been everywhere and done everything, so she might as well get married.  Once happiness has lost its charm, you might as well slam the door on it forever.

There is one bright spot about being married, however.  That way you can have an affair.  Adultery is fun, at least in the beginning, as we learn from another couple, Mr. Todhunter (Cecil Parker) and Margaret (Linden Travers).  They are both cheating on their spouses.  Todhunter had no qualms in the beginning about openly carrying on with her, but now he insists on separate rooms for the two of them.  His passions having cooled somewhat, he is worried that a divorce would spoil his chances of becoming a judge.

Anyway, after Iris’s friends leave, she finds it impossible to sleep because of the noise being made by Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), the guest in the room above her.  You know the type, someone that thinks it’s his God-given right to make as much noise as he wants, and who cares nothing about how much it disturbs his neighbors.  And like most inconsiderate neighbors, he believes that anyone who complains about the noise he is making is the one who is in the wrong.

When he refuses to quit making so much noise, she bribes the manager to have him removed from his room, so Gilbert barges into her room and acts as if he will have to sleep in her bed, threatening to tell people she invited him to sleep with her if she complains.  This forces her to call the manager and get him his room back.  We know we are supposed to smile at this obnoxious behavior of his, regarding it as charming and endearing, because he is tall and good looking.

Charters and Caldicott end up at a table with Miss Froy (Dame May Whitty), an elderly governess, returning to England now that her charges have grown up.  She comes across as whimsical and sentimental, boring the two men with her talk about the beautiful mountains and the lovely people of Bandrika, saying, “Everyone sings here. The people are just like happy children, with laughter on their lips and music in their hearts.”

“lt’s not reflected in their politics,” Charters replies dryly, but as Miss Froy parts from them, she says that we should not judge a country by its politics, noting that the English are quite honest by nature. The implication is that the British government is not honest (and that means the government presided over by Neville Chamberlain). The idea is that the people of a country can be betrayed by their government, but that the goodness of ordinary folks will ultimately prevail, clearly a populist sentiment.  This is ironic coming from her, since she turns out to be a part of the British government herself, a spy, to be exact.

She returns to her room, and just below her balcony, which is on the second floor, a man is serenading with a guitar.  She drops a coin out the window for him, not realizing he has just been strangled.  As we later find out, the melody being played is a coded message consisting of the vital clause of a secret pact between two European countries.

It must be a rather sophisticated code, for the simple melody is about sixteen bars long, all in one octave. If each note corresponds to a word, there is a vocabulary of about twelve words to work with.  Of course, we can expand that vocabulary by taking into account the length of each note.  I estimate we could increase the vocabulary to thirty-six words, given the melody we hear in the movie.

On the other hand, the notes might represent letters and numerals, and thirty-six different notes and their lengths would be just enough for every letter and numeral there is.  But then, it would have to be a mighty short clause.

In either event, the code is limited by the requirements of euphony.  A disagreeable combination of notes could not be serenaded on the sly, as a way of passing on the information to Miss Froy, so the number of possible combinations is constrained. And like most melodies, much of it is repetitive anyway. Notwithstanding all these limitations, the secret clause has somehow been thus encoded.

The person that strangled the man with the guitar knows that Miss Froy has the coded message, so he tries to kill her by pushing a flower pot out of a second-story window to land on her head while she is looking for her bag at the station prior to boarding the train.  But Iris was bringing Miss Froy her glasses, which she dropped, and the pot lands on her head instead, giving her a concussion. Miss Froy ends up taking care of her on the train, but after Iris takes a nap, she wakes up to find her gone.

Charters and Caldicott saw Miss Froy on the train, but they pretend not to have seen her, because they figure nothing really bad could have happened to her, and they do not want the train delayed, lest it cause them to miss the cricket match they hope to see when they get back to England. Todhunter pretends not to have seen her because he fears getting involved in an inquiry that might expose his infidelity.  The only one who takes her seriously is Gilbert, the noisy neighbor.

All those that are neither British nor American on that train act suspicious and untrustworthy, being either German or Italian.  Whereas Charters, Caldicott, and Todhunter merely deny having seen Miss Froy, the Germans and Italians deny she ever existed.  For example, when Iris asks the Italian magician and the German baroness in her compartment what happened to the lady that was sitting opposite her, they say there was no such woman.  Admittedly, this lets us know immediately that they are part of a conspiracy to deny Miss Froy’s existence, but in real life, such a tactic would be both unnecessary and unwise.  How much easier and less suspicious it would have been for them to say, “Oh, she got up and left the compartment a little while ago.”

Furthermore, it is inconsistent with phase two of their conspiracy, which had already been planned. When the train stops, a patient with bandages around her head is brought onto the train.  Dr. Hartz (Paul Lukas) is a brain surgeon, and he says he will be operating on her when they get off the train at the next stop.  But in reality, the supposed patient is a woman who dresses up like Miss Froy, while the real Miss Froy is then wrapped up in the bandages and put under guard by a fake nun.

But this woman substitute contradicts the story that Miss Froy does not exist.  The Italian that claimed that Miss Froy never existed now tells Iris and Gilbert that she came back.  They go to see her, but it’s a different woman.  As a result, whereas before, Iris was told that the bump on her head made her hallucinate the woman sitting across from her in the compartment, now she is told that there is such a woman as she described, only she’s German, not British, and her name isn’t Miss Froy.

Needless to say, if all the conspirators wanted to do was stop Miss Froy from taking the musically coded message to England, they should have strangled her and unceremoniously thrown her off the train.

Eventually, Gilbert finds evidence that Iris is right.  They pull a reverse switcheroo, removing the bandages from Miss Froy and putting them on her imposter, and that woman is taken off the train at the next station.  They are assisted by the fake nun, who is British, once she realizes Miss Froy is British too.  In fact, as it becomes clear that Miss Froy is in danger, most of the British passengers on the train begin pulling together.  Thus, the movie is optimistically saying that once the British people are shaken from their complacency, they will rally together and defeat the foreign aggressors.

The one exception is Todhunter. Though he is British, yet he wants to surrender to the soldiers trying to get control of the train, saying, “I don’t believe in fighting.”  He is derided as being a pacifist and compared to Christians who got thrown to the lions. When he insists on surrendering on his own, getting off the train waving a white handkerchief, he is contemptuously shot, falling to the ground and muttering that he doesn’t understand. So much for pacifism.  Of course, we all knew he was doomed the minute we found out he was cheating on his wife.  Margaret is spared, however, probably because she was already separated from her husband, saying at one point that he knew he would not be seeing her again.

Miss Froy admits she’s a spy and gives the melody code to Gilbert, in case she doesn’t make it. Before she leaves the train, she says, “I hope we shall meet again under quieter circumstances.” At first, I thought this was an allusion to Vera Lynn’s song, but that apparently was not published until the following year. Because she is the last person you would expect to be a spy, her example implies that the rest of us have no excuse for not doing our part. If a little old lady can risk her life in the fight against evil enemies, dodging bullets as she runs across the countryside of a hostile nation, then we all are capable of making at least some small contribution ourselves.

When they all get back to England, Charters and Caldicott find out that the cricket match has been canceled.  Iris sees her fiancé and hides from him, deciding to elope with Gilbert instead, because he is tall and good looking.  Just wait until the honeymoon is over, and he returns to being the inconsiderate jerk he was when she first met him.  In any event, the idea of marriage puts the “Wedding March” in Gilbert’s head, and when they get to the Foreign Office to pass on the code, he can’t remember the tune.  But then we hear the tune being played on a piano, and it turns out to be Miss Froy playing it, having made it back to England after all.  Apparently, she didn’t know how to decipher the code herself, or else she would have just walked in and stated the secret clause in words.

Of course, as has often been observed, she could have called the Foreign Office from Bandrika and hummed the tune over the phone.

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

There must have been a lot of suspicion concerning secret clauses in pacts between European governments in the years leading up to World War II, because there were two Hitchcock movies based on such a clause:  The first was The Lady Vanishes (1938); the second, Foreign Correspondent (1940). Whereas The Lady Vanishes was made before the outbreak of World War II, Foreign Correspondent was released about a year after it had started.  And whereas the former had a British orientation, the latter was made from an American perspective.  What both movies have in common, however, other than a secret clause between two nations, is a contempt for complacency and a distrust of pacifists.

Regarding the complacency, the movie begins with the following prologue, which praises foreign correspondents in contrast to all those Americans who thought everything was just fine.

To those intrepid ones who went across the seas to be the eyes and ears of America….  To those forthright ones who early saw the clouds of war while many of us at home were seeing rainbows….  To those clear-headed ones who now stand like recording angels among the dead and dying….  To the Foreign Correspondents—this motion picture is dedicated.

Oddly enough, all this florid prose regarding foreign correspondents is immediately contradicted by the opening scene and several other scenes thereafter.  Mr. Powers, editor of the New York Globe, has nothing but contempt for those foreign correspondents.  He is handed a cablegram from London, which is what he has been waiting for.  It is dated August 19, 1939, less than two weeks away from Germany’s invasion of Poland, which started World War II.  The cable says that according to a high official, there is absolutely no chance of war this year, on account of late crops.  I guess the idea is that everyone will be too busy with the harvest to fight a war.

Powers throws the cable down.  “Foreign correspondent,” he says with disgust.  “I could get more news out of Europe looking in the crystal ball….  They all make me sick.”

The foreign correspondent that sent the cable is Stebbins (Robert Benchley), who, we later learn, makes no pretense of being of any value, just passing on government handouts back to the states, and then spending the rest of his time drinking, fooling around with women, playing cards late into the night, and then betting on the horses the next morning. Later in the movie, a woman says that most foreign correspondents are “greasy.”

But as far as Powers is concerned, the main problem with foreign correspondents is that they are all intellectuals.  Powers continues with his rant:

I don’t want any more economists, sages, or oracles bombinating over our cable.  I want a reporter.  Someone who doesn’t know the difference between an ism and a kangaroo.  A good, honest crime reporter.  That’s what the Globe needs.  That’s what Europe needs. There’s a crime hatching on that bedeviled continent.

That line of thought leads Powers to think of Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), the crime reporter that beat up a policeman.  He sends for Jones, who thinks he’s about to be fired for that reason, and thus has an insolent manner.  But Powers believes that beating up policemen is a virtue, so Jones is just the sort of man he needs.

Powers asks him about the crisis in Europe.  “What crisis?” Jones asks.  Powers smiles. He answers that he is referring to the impending war.  Jones says he hasn’t been giving it much thought.  That’s just what the anti-intellectual Powers is looking for, someone blithely ignorant of what is going on in the world.  He offers Jones the job of going to Europe to cover “the biggest story in the world today.” Jones admits he is not equipped to cover that story, but says he could read up on it.  But Powers forbids it:  “No reading up.  I like you just as you are.  What Europe needs is a fresh, unused mind.” In the background are two massive bookshelves filled with books.  In other words, Powers has undoubtedly read all those books, and he knows better than anyone that they are of no value.

“Foreign correspondent, huh?” Jones asks.  “No,” Powers replies, “reporter.”

So, foreign correspondents are a generally worthless lot, mostly because they read books and think. Of course, this movie is condescending.  It presumes that the audience consists of people who don’t read books and think, and the movie is flattering them for their mindless ignorance.

In light of all this, one must suppose that after the movie was filmed, someone started worrying about the newspapers that employ foreign correspondents.  Those newspapers might retaliate by publishing reviews unfavorable to the movie, resulting in bad box office.  As a result, the prologue was added as a way of making amends. And inasmuch as the working titles of this movie while scripts were being written were Personal History and Imposter, it may be that it was also thought wise to make the title of this movie be Foreign Correspondent, as another way of preemptively atoning for all those disparaging comments.

While Powers wants crime reporter Johnny Jones to go to Europe to get the facts, he realizes that the newspaper must keep up appearances.  He tells Jones that he will be writing under the name of Huntley Haverstock.  You see, people that read newspapers need to believe that their foreign correspondents do read books and think, something they would never believe of a “Johnny Jones.”

Powers says the man of the moment over in Europe is Van Meer, a Dutch diplomat, whom he refers to as “Holland’s strongman.”  According to Powers, “If Van Meer stays at the helm of his country’s affairs for the next three months, it may mean peace in Europe.  If we knew what he was thinking we’d know where Europe stands.”

A diplomat in Holland is essential to preventing war?  Jones was thinking that maybe Hitler was more important, but Powers gives him a dismissive look.  Anyway, Van Meer has signed a treaty with a diplomat in Belgium, and Jones is assigned to find out what is in that treaty.  So, some agreement between Holland and Belgium is the key to determining whether Europe will remain at peace or go to war.

This sounds like a joke.  The Rome-Berlin Axis; the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact; the Agreement of Mutual Assistance between the United Kingdom and Poland—these were not the treaties that mattered.  It was some Dutch-Belgium treaty on which depended the peace of Europe.

While Jones is still in Powers’ office, he is introduced to Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), leader of the Universal Peace Party.  It turns out that Fisher has an attractive daughter, Carol (Laraine Day), with whom Jones eventually becomes romantically involved.

After Jones arrives in England, he meets Van Meer while both are on their way to the luncheon being held by the Universal Peace Party at a hotel.  Van Meer wishes there were more men like Fisher, promoting peace.  Jones tries to get Van Meer to talk about the possibility of war, but all Van Meer seems to want to talk about is birds:

Look at those birds.  No matter how big the city, there must always be parks and places for the birds to live.  I was walking through the park this morning, and I saw several people feeding the birds.  It’s a good sign at a time like this.

Jones rolls his eyes in exasperation.  They arrive at the hotel, where we hear an orchestra playing a Viennese waltz, perhaps as a way of inducing a little doubt in our minds as to the nature of this Universal Peace Party.  Soon thereafter, Van Meer disappears.  Later, Jones gets a cable telling him to go to Amsterdam, where Van Meer will be giving an important speech.  When Jones greets Van Meer in Holland, the diplomat appears not to recognize him.  Moments later, he is assassinated.  Jones, Carol, and another reporter, Scott ffolliott (George Sanders), team up to chase the assassin and try to find out what is going on.

What makes the Dutch-Belgian treaty really special is that it has a secret clause, known as Clause 27, so secret in fact that it is only known to the two people who signed the treaty, because it was never written down.  This raises the question as to how anyone, other than the two signatories, knows of the existence of Clause 27.

To find out what is in Clause 27, the spies kidnapped Van Meer with the idea of torturing him until he talked. But to keep the world from knowing that Van Meer had been kidnapped, they got a man who looked like Van Meer to take his place and then had him assassinated. Presumably, the impostor did not know about that part of the plan.

This was not making full use of a valuable resource.  Having secured an imposter, the spies could have attacked their problem from two angles.  While torturing the real Van Meer to find out what was in the clause, the imposter could have engaged the Belgian diplomat in a conversation about Clause 27, expressing doubts and asking for reassurances.  Alternatively, he could have told the Belgian diplomat that he changed his mind and would no longer honor that clause.

In any event, this is another parallel with The Lady Vanishes.  Just as Miss Froy, who knows the vital clause of a secret treaty between two countries, disappears and is replaced by a woman that looks like her in that movie; so too in this movie does Van Meer know of a secret clause in a treaty between two countries, and he disappears and is replaced by a substitute.  In each movie, the protagonist knows that a real person had been replaced by a substitute, but has trouble convincing others of this.  In each movie, someone who says he believes the protagonist turns out to be an enemy spy, in whom the protagonist puts his or her trust, thereby putting him or her in danger of being killed by the spy.

Back to the movie at hand.  If the world thinks Van Meer has been assassinated, then that means that as far as everyone else is concerned, only the Belgian diplomat knows what is in Clause 27. Van Meer might have trusted this other fellow, but can we expect the country he represented to honor a secret clause whose content is known only to the diplomat of the other country and take his word for it? So, with Van Meer’s faked assassination, it would seem that the clause has just become worthless.

Moving right along, if I had been Van Meer and the spies started torturing me to tell what was in Clause 27, I would have just made up something. After all, it’s a secret, so how would the spies have known the difference?

But enough of this. Clause 27 is obviously what Hitchcock called a “MacGuffin,” something the spies are after, but the audience doesn’t care.  But a MacGuffin should meet some minimum standard of believability.  Personally, I found the whole business about Clause 27 to be palpably absurd, to the point that I found it distracting.  While I was supposed to be enjoying all the danger and intrigue—Jones sneaking around in the windmill, someone falling from a cathedral, the spies torturing Van Meer—I kept being bothered by the nagging thought that there is no way Van Meer and his secret clause could have prevented war.  We had no trouble believing that the vital clause in The Lady Vanishes was important, and for three reasons:  World War II had not yet begun; it was left to our imagination which two countries had agreed to that clause; and the clause was not supposed to prevent war, but merely be an important piece of intelligence as war became more likely.  Foreign Correspondent was released after the war had already begun, which means after Germany had already invaded Poland. What possible agreement between the Netherlands and Belgium could have prevented that?

When Jones discovers Van Meer in the windmill, the diplomat has been drugged and can hardly think.  But he manages to tell Jones, “All that I can tell you is that they are going to take me away by plane like a bird. Always there are places in the city where birds can get crumbs.”  Once again, Jones is frustrated by all this talk of birds.  In any event, Jones cannot rescue Van Meer while the spies are still in the windmill, and soon after, Van Meer disappears again.

Fisher, the leader of that pacifist organization, actually turns out to be a spy, and is the one that arranged the kidnapping. You just can’t trust those peaceniks.  This makes things difficult for Jones and Carol.  When they first meet, he makes a derogatory remark about “well-meaning amateurs” that think a pacifist organization can prevent war.  She bristles, noting that these well-meaning amateurs will be doing the fighting if there is war.  This gets them off to a bad start.  Later, when Jones realizes that Fisher is a spy, he doesn’t want to believe Carol is part the spy ring, and she is reluctant to believe anything bad about her father.

A day arrives in which both ffolliott and Jones say that war is going to break out “tomorrow,” and we learn from Fisher that England has already started with the blackouts.  Earlier, we were supposed to believe that if Van Meer remained alive with his knowledge of Clause 27, war might be prevented. But now that war is inevitable, the significance of Clause 27 has changed.  Now we are supposed to believe that knowledge of this clause will help Germany win that war, if the spies can find out what it is.

The spies take Van Meer to a room above a restaurant where they start torturing him. Fisher arrives and pretends to be his friend, trying to get him to tell about the clause. When Van Meer finds out that Fisher is a spy as well, he says to all of them:

You can do what you want with me.  That’s not important.  But you’ll never conquer them, Fisher.  Little people everywhere, who give crumbs to birds.  Lie to them. Drive them, whip them, force them into war.  When the beasts like you will devour each other, then the world will belong to the little people.

The little people that feed the birds!  What is this, a Frank Capra movie?  But this was the implication of Miss Froy’s remark in The Lady Vanishes, when she said you can’t judge a country by its government, that it’s the ordinary people that are important. This praise of the little people, taken in conjunction with Powers’ anti-intellectual attitude and his approval of the way Jones beat up a policeman, shows that both movies share a populist ideology, although it’s more pronounced in this one.

A few minutes earlier, ffolliott was caught snooping around and brought into the room at gunpoint. He watches as the spies finally inflict some method of torture on Van Meer so gruesome that we are not allowed to see what it is, but only see the faces of ffolliott and the woman holding a gun on him as they react in horror.  Van Meer agrees to talk. He says, “In the event of invasion by an enemy….” At that point, ffolliott starts scuffling with the spies, and then jumps out the window.  Figuring the jig is up, the spies take off.  Van Meer is rescued, but falls into a coma.

War does break out the next day.  Fisher decides to leave England and fly to America, taking Carol with him.  Jones and ffolliott also get themselves a seat on that plane. However, the plane is damaged when it is fired on by a German destroyer. Immediately, the captain of she ship sends a message to the radioman, who tells the pilot, “It’s the Germans. They’re sorry.  They thought we were a bomber. She’ll rescue us straight-away.”

That certainly is sporting of them.  You can tell that this is early in the war.  In a later Hitchcock movie, Lifeboat (1944), after a U-boat torpedoes a merchant ship, the captain orders the lifeboats to be fired on before the submarine itself is sunk in return. I guess by that time the hatred of the Germans had reached the point where an audience was not ready to accept decent behavior on the part of a German captain, and would be willing to believe nothing but the worst about him.

The plane crashes into the ocean.  Many scramble onto a wing of the plane, but when it proves unable to support everybody, Fisher redeems himself by getting off and drowning.  Maybe.  While Fisher was on the plane, Van Meer had recovered, telling Stebbins that Fisher was a spy.  Fisher had intercepted a telegram, intended for ffolliott, saying that Fisher was to be arrested when he arrives in America. Knowing that he probably would be executed for espionage, he may have just been looking for an easy way out.

This is another parallel with The Lady Vanishes.  In neither movie is the pacifist an upright, moral character who just happens to be misguided in his beliefs.  Rather, he is depicted in both movies as unsavory.  Not content to portray pacifism as merely naïve or imprudent, these movies vilify it. In The Lady Vanishes, the pacifist is a cad, an adulterer who promised the woman he was having an affair with that they would get married, but changed his mind when he realized a divorce would hurt his career.  In Foreign Correspondent, the pacifist is not really interested in peace, but working with the enemy to help them win the upcoming war.  And as punishment, both pacifists die in the end.

Jones manages to get his story back to the states.  Unfortunately, Jones is never able to file a report on what Clause 27 said, or explain why it mattered. Perhaps it was an agreement as to how the Dutch and the Belgians planned to divide up Europe after the war.

Anyway, he returns to England, continuing to be a great foreign correspondent, sending important stories back to his newspaper, under the name of Huntley Haverstock.  In the final scene, he is making a live broadcast over the radio when the bombs start falling all around them, causing the lights to go out. Instead of taking shelter, he continues to broadcast fearlessly, Carol remaining by his side, as he refers to the lights literally as well as metaphorically:

I can’t read the rest of my speech because the lights went out.  So I’ll have to talk off the cuff.  That noise you hear isn’t static.  It’s death coming to London.  You can hear the bombs falling on the streets and the homes.  Don’t tune me out.  Hang on.  This is a big story. You’re part of it.  It’s too late to do anything here except stand in the dark, let them come.  It’s as if the lights were out everywhere except in America. Keep those lights burning.  Cover them with steel, ring them with guns, build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them.  Hello, America, hang onto your lights.  They’re the only lights left in the world.

The speech, of course, is intended to rouse America from its complacency and pacifism as we hear “The Star Spangled Banner” being played in the background.  But I would have given anything for ffolliott to walk in at that point, saying, “You realize, of course, that without electricity, the microphone stopped working when the lights went out.”

Suspicion (1941)

Murder is a dreadful thing.  In real life, that is.  But in a movie, a murder can save us from something dreadful.

For example, in the movie Kalifornia (1993), a couple, played by David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes, decide go to California, but they are a little short on funds, so they advertise for a couple to ride with them and share the expenses.  Answering the ad is a low-class couple, played by Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis.  The trip becomes a most unpleasant experience, and Forbes especially can’t wait for it to end.  But then Lewis tells her that she and Duchovny are their best friends, threatening to be a part of their lives forever.

Fortunately, the movie provides a way out from this dreadful situation.  Brad Pitt turns out to be a serial killer, resulting in a succession of purgative murders, the last of which is Lewis herself, before Duchovny finally kills him.  Now Duchovny and Forbes will never have to socialize with Pitt and Lewis again.

In Play Misty for Me (1971), Clint Eastwood play a disc jockey that thinks he is going to have an uncomplicated fling with a fan played by Jessica Walter.  She says she understands that he already has someone else and does not want to complicate his life, but that is no reason they can’t sleep together if they feel like it.  But sex does strange things to people, and the next thing you know, Walter is madly in love with Eastwood.  Worse, she assumes that he feels the same way about her, completely forgetting about the assurances she gave him on the first night.  When he protests that he never told her that he loved her, she responds that there are ways of saying things that don’t involve words.  When he tries to break off with her, she becomes suicidal.  It looks as though he will never be free of her.

Fortunately for Eastwood, Walter becomes a knife-wielding psycho, who kills a police detective and threatens to kill Eastwood’s actual girlfriend.  In the nick of time, Eastwood shows up at his girlfriend’s house where he is attacked by Walter.  In self-defense, he punches her, knocking her through a glass door, over a balcony railing, and down a cliff to her death.  Now he is finally free of her.

Think how unbearable these two movies would have been without murder to save the day!

In Suspicion, which was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1941, Lina (Joan Fontaine), a woman on the verge of being an old maid, falls in love with Johnnie (Cary Grant) and marries him without knowing anything about him. That she did not know he was a congenital liar, a compulsive gambler, and a thief until after she married him might be understandable, although there were rumors that he cheated at cards and was the corespondent in a divorce case; but that she did not even know that he had no job nor any intention of getting one is ludicrous. Soon she begins to suspect that he murdered his friend Beaky (Nigel Bruce) to get his money and that he will try to murder her for the same reason, especially when he brings her a glass of milk right after an author of detective novels has told him of a poison that is in every home and is undetectable. In the last reel, we have one of those unbelievable character changes for which Hollywood movies are notorious, in which Johnnie realizes how bad he has been and is prepared to go to prison for his financial misdeeds, after having given up on the idea of committing suicide. And when Lina realizes that Johnnie is not a murderer, the way is open to them to live happily ever after.

This might have been three different movies besides the one actually produced.  In what could have been a great movie, Johnnie does murder Beaky, and he does give Lina a glass of milk with poison in it. She suspects as much, but she drinks it anyway because, if it does have poison in it, then that means Johnnie does not love her, so she does not want to live anymore. But before she does, she gives Johnnie a letter to mail for her, in which she includes incriminating evidence that Johnnie is a murderer. After Lina dies from the poison, Johnnie smugly drops the letter in a mailbox and walks away whistling, not realizing that he has sealed his doom. There is some debate as to whether this is the ending Hitchcock wanted, but that the studio imposed a happy ending instead, or Hitchcock intended all along to make the movie be about a neurotic woman’s overwrought imagination. It doesn’t matter who wanted what. This would have been a much better movie, because there would have been actual murders instead of just the possibility of murder.

The second movie that might have been would have had the same ending as the novel on which it is based, Before the Fact by Francis Iles.  In this version, similar to the previous one, Lina knows the milk is poisoned, but she drinks it anyway because she does not want to live, once she realizes that Johnnie would want to kill her, making her an accomplice before the fact to her own murder.  But there is no incriminating letter.  She loves Johnnie so much that she hopes he will get away with it, and even imagines that he will miss her when she’s gone.

I can’t help but think that the novel is an expression of misogyny arising out of resentment.  It is not uncommon for a plain, ordinary man to find himself longing for the love a woman who has given herself completely to some jerk that is unworthy of her affection.  It exasperates him that he would be so nice to her, but she would rather be mistreated by this other guy just because he is charming, good-looking, and tall.  In reading this novel, this forlorn fellow will have no doubt that if Lina is in danger of being an old maid, it is only because it would never even occur to her to accept the love of someone like him.  In fact, in the movie that was actually produced, there is just such a character.  At a ball that Lina attends, only because she expects to see Johnnie there, a homely, bald-headed man named Reggie, who is just barely an inch taller than Lina, reminds her of the dance she promised him, presumably having filled in his name on her dance card just a short time ago.  She apologizes for having forgotten, saying, “Why, of course.  Poor Reggie.”  As she dances with him, she is clearly distracted, looking around the room, wondering where Johnnie is.  When Johnnie does arrive, just as the dance has ended, Lina sees him and rushes away from Reggie without saying a word, leaving him standing there with a bewildered look on his face.  As Lina comes up to Johnnie, who has just crashed the party, he takes her in his arms and starts dancing with her.  As they swirl away to a Viennese waltz, a rejected Reggie sees the glow on Lina’s face and the excitement in her eyes, something he certainly never saw when she was dancing with him.  In short, Lina would rather be murdered by the man she loves than be loved by someone like Reggie that she can’t be bothered with. In reading this novel, a man of that sort may get an imaginary revenge against that girl he loved when he was young, but who never knew (or cared) that he existed.

The third movie that might have been would have been one in which there is neither a murder nor suspicion of murder (requiring a different title, of course). It is a movie that would have been unendurable. There would have been no relief from the fact that Johnnie has married Lina for her money and is annoyed to find out it does not amount to as much as he thought it would, especially when her father dies and does not leave her anything more than her usual allowance. We would have been left with Lina’s being married to a compulsive liar, who hocks her beloved chairs so he can bet on the horses; who believes he was not meant to have to work for a living, and when forced to take a job managing an estate, soon gets caught embezzling funds; and who cons Beaky into investing in a real estate venture that we know will only result in losing money as Johnnie squanders the investment on loose living. And there would have been no relief from the fact that Lina will continue to put up with this because she loves Johnnie.

In other words, we need at least the possibility of murder to be introduced halfway into the movie as a way of making us forget about what a horrible marriage this is. That Johnnie is a despicable human being even if he is not a murderer goes without saying. But there is something irritating about Lina as well, what with all her mewing about love as she puts up with Johnnie’s abuse. Finally, Beaky’s attitude toward Johnnie, that we must all forgive everything that Johnnie does, because, well, that’s just the way Johnnie is, is also annoying.  They all deserve to die.

Therefore, we have four versions of this movie, one actual, three possible.  The one in which there are two murders, the one that should have been made, would have been a great movie; the one in which there is only one murder, as in the novel, might have provided for the venting of some misogynistic spleen; the one in which there is only the suspicion of murder, the movie that was actually produced, is only fair; but the one in which there is not even the possibility of murder, just a miserable marriage, would have been dreadful.

 

 

Vertigo (1958)

Unless a movie is a fantasy, like The Wizard of Oz (1939), people tend to feel they have been deceived if they find out that most of a movie has just been a dream.  To keep the audience from feeling cheated in this way, some movies will be ambiguous as to whether what we are seeing is reality or a dream, and this is the case with Vertigo.

The movie begins with a close-up of a woman’s face. The camera moves in even closer on her eye, in which we begin to see swirling animation along with the opening credits. Moving into her eye suggests that we have moved into her subjective state, allowing us to see what she is imagining or remembering. And the animation is a further indication that what we are seeing is not real. One might be justified, even at this early stage, in wondering if the movie that follows is a woman’s dream.

After the credits, the movie jumps right into a chase sequence on the rooftops of tall buildings, when police detective John “Scottie” Ferguson (James Stewart) slips and finds himself hanging from the gutter above the city street below, which causes him to have vertigo. A uniformed policeman tries to pull him to safety, but slips and falls to his death. When the scene ends, Ferguson is still hanging there, and we do not see him being rescued, nor is there any reference to his being rescued afterward, leading some critics to argue that the rest of the movie is his hallucinatory dream while he remains suspended.  However, my preferred point at which this movie becomes a dream is in neither of these two scenes, but comes somewhat later.

Presumably, then, Ferguson is rescued, but he is forced to retire on account of the acrophobia resulting from the incident on the rooftop.  In a subsequent scene, we meet Midge. In her conversation with Ferguson, whom she calls “Johnny” or “Johnny O,” we find out that they were engaged for three weeks while they were in college, but that she broke off the engagement, even though she says that she never married because he is the only man for her. From the surreptitious glances she gives him as they talk, we suspect there is more to the story than Ferguson is aware of. Barbara Bel Geddes, who plays Midge, is a nice looking woman, but she has no sex appeal. We can easily believe that she broke off the engagement when she realized that he had no passion for her. Platonic relationships are often characterized by saying that the man and woman are like brother and sister, but several remarks suggest that she is more like a mother to him. This implies that there is something naïve and inexperienced about Ferguson, as when they talk about braziers, and she says, “You know about those things. You’re a big boy now.”  Ferguson is a middle-aged bachelor. Today, a man who has been a lifelong bachelor would be assumed to have had sexual relationships along the way. But in 1958, when this movie was made, it was not uncommon for bachelors to be virgins, and that is probably the case with Ferguson.  This makes it easy to believe that he might become madly and obsessively in love with Madeleine (Kim Novak) later on in the movie.

This Madeleine with whom he eventually falls in love is the wife of an old friend, Gavin Elster, who asks Ferguson to follow her around. He is worried about her because she goes into dream-like trances, which he believes have something to do with her obsession with her great-grandmother, Carlotta Valdes, who committed suicide.  Ferguson reluctantly agrees to follow her.  When Madeleine tries to drown herself in the bay, he rescues her.  Eventually, however, she manages to kill herself by leaping from a bell tower.  Ferguson was unable to stop her because his vertigo prevented him from keeping up with her as she ascended the stairs.  He feels responsible, and he ends up having nightmares, in which he sees himself falling the way Madeleine did. As a result, he winds up in a mental institution, in a catatonic state.

Supposedly, he gets out of the mental institution, discovers a woman named Judy, who looks like Madeleine, and begins trying to make the resemblance even greater by getting her to dye her hair and wear it like Madeleine, to dress like Madeleine, until he eventually discovers she really is Madeleine. Or rather, that the real Madeleine was murdered by her husband, and that Judy helped him do it by pretending to be Madeleine. When Judy got to the top of the bell tower, Elster was already there with his dead wife, whom he threw off the tower.  In the process of discovering that this is what really happened, Ferguson forces Judy to go back to the mission with him and once again ascend the stairs of the bell tower.  This leads to a climactic scene in which Judy accidentally falls to her death, which apparently cures Ferguson of his vertigo.

Though the movie can be understood realistically in this way, there is a good reason to suspect that the second half is just a dream. In any movie you have ever seen in which someone is in a hospital, there is almost always a getting-out-of-the-hospital scene, as in The Glass Key (1942), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and The Godfather (1972). But there is no such scene in this movie. And considering that Ferguson was in a psychotic state, the need for a getting-out-of-the-hospital scene would be even greater than in the examples just given, where only physical conditions were involved.

Instead, we get a discontinuous transition.  We see Midge in Ferguson’s hospital room, where he is staring off into space, oblivious to her presence.  She leaves the room and stops by the psychiatrist’s office, where she tells him that she does not think Ferguson is ever coming back.  Then she walks away, down the hall, where darkness slowly closes in around her, almost as if this were the end of the movie.  Suddenly, we see Ferguson outside the building where Madeleine once lived, and the fact that he had once been under the care of psychiatrists is never even referred to during the rest of the movie.

Alfred Hitchcock, who directed this movie, could have made it explicit that what follows is a dream by the well-known method of closing in on James Stewart’s eyes, allowing the image of his eyes to be slowly replaced by an overlapping image of Stewart standing outside Madeleine’s apartment.  But, as noted above, the audience would have lost its patience having to watch the entire second half of the movie while knowing it was just a dream.  Instead, Hitchcock allows us to watch the movie under the assumption that the entire movie depicts events that are actually happening, while at the same time giving us hints that at least some of the movie is a dream:  the closeup on the eye of a woman (Madeleine? Judy?) during the opening credits; Ferguson’s hanging from the gutter without being rescued; Madeleine’s dream-like trances; Ferguson’s nightmares; and the absence of any scene showing us that he has recovered from his catatonic trance and is being released from the hospital.

Other than Vertigo, there is one other movie in which there is no getting-out-of-the-hospital scene.  In the movie Four Daughters (1938), John Garfield plays a character who dies in a hospital.  But in the remake, Young at Heart (1954), Frank Sinatra, who played the corresponding character, Barney Sloan, did not like the unhappy ending, and so he insisted that Barney live instead.  The result is a tacked-on happy ending, in which Barney goes from dying in the hospital to suddenly being home and in great health.  Whether intended or not, one cannot help but interpret this final scene as Barney’s wishful dream in the hospital in the last moments of his life.  And considering that Barney had been gloomy and miserable throughout the movie, the fact that the final scene shows him playing the piano, happy and content, even further invites the dream interpretation.

In any event, by regarding the second half of Vertigo as a dream, the movie as a whole becomes more realistic. The murder plot revealed in the second half is far-fetched and would have been extremely difficult to arrange. Elster would have had to get his wife to wear the same clothes that Judy was wearing that night, find some reason to get her up to the bell tower, break her neck, and then wait for Judy to arrive before throwing the real Madeleine out of the tower.  And then he would have to hope that Ferguson would not look at the body and discover that it was a different woman.  There are easier ways for a man to get rid of his wife than that. The idea that Madeleine was mentally unbalanced, had found out about her great-grandmother and become obsessed with her story, leading her to commit suicide, is much easier to believe.

Furthermore, the Judy of the second half of the movie appears to be lower class, whereas the Madeleine of the first half strikes us as middle class.  We would have to believe that Elster was like Professor Higgins to Judy’s Eliza Doolittle of My Fair Lady (1964), but that once the murder was accomplished and Judy was abandoned by him, she lapsed back into her lower-class mannerisms.

Finally, Midge is not seen in the second half of the movie. She represents rationality and common sense, as well as being the woman Ferguson should have married. Her absence in the second half of the movie is an indication that only irrational forces are at work in his wish-fulfilling dream. By dreaming that the woman he loved really did not die that night, that she was involved in a murder plot to kill the real Madeleine, he absolves himself of any responsibility for her death.