Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

THE SERVANT (1963)

From the beginning of Joseph Losey’s THE SERVANT (1963, British) we know something is going to go wrong with the central relationship depicted in the film.  Perhaps it is the portentous camera angles or Johnny Dankworth’s jazzy music score which seems the epitome of grim decadence.  Or maybe it is Dirk Bogarde’s first appearance in this unsettling little film.  His is a demeanor of rigid, perfect decorum.  He knows his place; so much so that we can’t be anything but certain that he is bad.  From that point it is just a question of how far Losey and screenwriter Harold Pinter will take us.  In this, the first of their three collaborations, the experience is a potent one.  Potent because it features two of Pinter’s favorite themes: the break down of communication and thus relationships and the presence of a cryptic menace.  But it is also powerful because of Losey’s visual and audio touches, prominent throughout. 

We begin as Tony (James Fox), a symbol of snotty British upper class privilege, interviews a prospective employee, Barrett (Bogarde), who will become his man-servant.  But things get off to a bad start in the new relationship.  A “gentleman’s gentleman”, Barrett is mortified (or so it seems) when he accidentally intrudes on a tryst between Tony and his fiancée, Susan (Wendy Craig).  The interrupted lovers are not too pleased either.  Especially Susan (perhaps already aware that her own relationship is about to go bad), who is most demonstrative in revealing her displeasure with Barrett.  Interestingly enough, Tony castigates his lady-love.  “He may be a servant but he’s still a human being.”  We discover through the course of the film that Barrett is very human – with all the nastiness that entails.  For the moment, Tony is in control.  But Barrett has plans…

The devolution of the relationship is subtly depicted with carefully composed camera shots.  In an early scene Tony, who is standing, towers over Barrett who is meekly sitting, hat on lap in a wooden chair.  The high angle of the camera emphasizes the domination of the upper class over the servant class.  Slowly,  Barrett takes over the dominant role.  By the end, we have the one time subservient butler towering over Tony as he crawls on the floor in a drunken stupor – a defeated and deflated man.  But before we get to this point, we are treated to several bravura passages of visual and audio effects (including clever mixing of dialogue in the restaurant scene), often showing the manipulation of Tony by Barrett:  When the servant’s sexy sister, Vera (Sarah Miles) comes to visit (through Barrett’s chicanery), Tony finds himself alone with her in the kitchen.  A dripping faucet stands in for Tony’s heart beat, the sound getting louder and faster as Tony becomes increasingly aroused.  And when that faucet gives way to a ticking clock, we know it is only a matter of time.  Vera finishes her seduction of Tony in a plush, high back chair, turned away from us,  hiding the assignation from the eager eyes of the audience.  All that is alowd us is a close up of Vera’s feet hanging over the arm of the chair as she wiggles in ecstacy.  And what can be said of all the close-ups of feet throughout the film?  A close up of Vera’s feet begin the kitchen scene.  There is a tight shot of Tony’s feet splashing in a puddle followed by his feet soaking in a bath, close shots of a woman’s feet pacing in front of a phone booth and more.  But we must allow filmmakers their fetishes and perhaps shouldn’t delve into things that unlike the rest of the film, may be no deeper than that puddle of Tony’s. 

CREDITS: Directed by Joseph Losey.  Written by Harold Pinter.  Based on a novel by Robin Maugham.   Photography by Douglas Slocombe.  Music by Johnny Dankworth.  With Dirk Bogarde, James Fox, Sarah Miles, Wendy Craig, Catherine Lacey and Richard Vernon.

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June 14, 2012 Posted by | British film, class system | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alfred Hitchcock’s final days

Alfred Hitchcock is confined to his bed, sitting up only occasionally to take a soothing sip of cool water from a glass he keeps on the nightstand.  He leans back again and waits…It is April 1980 and a few weeks earlier he could get around-a little- with the aid of a walker, and a stiff belt of Vodka.  His home at Bellagio Road has been his cage for the last few months-a private trap like the ones Norman Bates and Marion Crane found themselves in some twenty years before.  Traps like so many of the characters from his films endured.  It seems that the story from his youth-that famously claustrophobic one, the one that played itself out over and over in Hitchcock’s nightmares (filmic and otherwise)-will be with him to the end: Hitchcock, the boy, no more than five, locked in a jail cell by a London Policemen at the urging of the child’s father, William.  “This is what we do to naughty little boys”.  The policemen’s words, so scarring, so traumatic, so…well in fact, no one will ever know how much of the story is true and how much is Hitchcock exagerating-the years piling onto his fragile psyche.  Maybe the young Alfred-his parents called him “Fred”, later he would be known to the world as “Hitch”-was simply the recipient of a stern talking to by the cop about some long forgotten infraction.  Whatever happened that day so many years ago, it helped mold Hitch’s professional career from the start in the 1920s untill the very last film.  But it is 1980 now and he has given up all pretense of remaining the great director. 

He closed his office at Universal studios in late 1979, a few months after dismissing his last collaborator screenwriter David Freeman.  The two men would never see the screenplay they created-the spy thriller, THE SHORT NIGHT-become a film.  Perhaps Hitch knew it would never reach the screen, all along.  The director invented scenes for the script so outrageous that one is left to wonder…grotesque scenes of graphic masturbation engaged in by the male and female lead characters.  And worse-Hitchcock became obsessed with the idea that the film’s hero should, along the way, commit rape.  This last idea is the reason his first writer on THE SHORT NIGHT, Ernest Lehman (NORTH BY NORTHWEST, FAMILY PLOT), left the project in disgust.  How, he wondered, could the audience be expected to root for such a despicable character?  It can’t  be argued that such ideas were the result of encroaching senility.  Hitchcock included a suggestion of masturbation in a never produced screenplay of 1967, called “Kaleidoscope”.  And Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) rapes his wife, Marnie (Tippy Hedren) in the 1964 film of the same name.  Patrick McGilligan points out in his impressive bio, ALFRED HITCHCOCK, A LIFE IN DARKNESS AND LIGHT, that Freeman became convinced the filmmaker always had a Dionysian streak.  A streak that after nearly 80 years of life, could no longer be suppressed.  Not that it ever was completely.  Perhaps Hitchcock’s strict Roman Catholic upbringing was like a cap on a well that loosened more and more as he grew older.  The geyser is finally bursting forth in his final years.  He has left behind the subtlety that served him so well in his films-especially the earlier ones.  His loneliness and horror now are too intense.  His wife of 53 years, Alma, is no longer much company since being incapacitated by a stroke in 1972.  He gets a few visitors.  Old collaborators such as Norman Lloyd, who was so chilling falling from the Statue of Liberty in SABOTEUR.  Hume Cronyn (unforgettable as Herbie Hawkins in SHADOW OF A DOUBT) shows up one last time and Hitch becomes inconsolable as they discuss the past.  He knows this will be their last meeting.  Then there are the ugly outbursts of anger, as the once great director screams in rage at nonplussed visitors.  He makes it quite clear that he wants to be left alone.  Soon, he will get his wish.  But it is he who abandoned them. 

He has lost interest in everything.  He has ceased his private screenings of recent and classic films.  Even his cherished vodka no longer holds any magic for him.  It has been replaced by that glass of water.  Hitchcock, confined to his bed with various ailments (kidney, heart etc.), but nothing that could be considered truly fatal, seems to be willfully bringing about his own death.  He waits…and perhaps dwells on the past.  The heady successes of his film career.  His unspoken heroics during WW II, when he helped pay the way for British war orphans to be resettled in the U.S. and Canada.  Thoughts of his mother, Emma, whom he so adored.  Of course he thinks of Alma, a filmmaker herself.  She co-wrote many of  his early films and shared her life, as well as her art with him.  Then there is his only child, Patricia, who appeared in several of his movies.  She has always been a good daughter, one to make a father proud.  And England, his beloved homeland, where he began in silent films as a title card designer and had his first thrilling successes as a director.  There will always be an England-if not an Alfred Hitchcock.  Barely cognizant now, perhaps he has shadowed memories of those triumphs that came too late in life to be savored fully: His AFI life achievement award ceremony in March 1979-and his Knighthood-it is Sir Alfred now.  Coming as it did just a few months ago in early 1980, the honor seems a wasted, empty gesture.  And he dwells on something he can never forget: That jail cell…the one that left him with a life long fear of the police, and a need to trap his characters and the world, in a vice grip of suspense, anxiety and fear. 

Find out about the BFI’s efforts to restore early Hitchcock films and what you can do to help at: Rescue the Hitchcock 9

RELATED POST: Hitchcock’s EASY VIRTUE (1927)

July 18, 2010 Posted by | Alfred Hitchcock, Alma Reville Hitchcock, American Film, British film, film directors, Hume Cronyn, NormanLloyd, Patricia Hitchcock | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Peter Brook’s Production of Marat/Sade (1966)

Peter Brook, the British director of LORD OF THE FLIES (1963), gave us another wallow in degeneracy with MARAT/SADE (Great Britain, 1966).  This production of The Royal Shakespeare Company is also known as THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF JEAN-PAUL MARAT AS PERFORMED BY THE INMATES OF THE ASYLUM AT CHERENTON UNDER THE DIRECTION OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE, and as wallows go, it’s a pretty energetic one.  “Hysterical” is perhaps a more appropriate word, but no one ever said hysteria can’t be occasionally fascinating. 

It is 1808 and the Marquis (Patrick Magee), confined to the famous French institution because of his inflammatory writings, is impressed with the asylum staff’s history of putting on theatrical productions with inmates as performers.  It is a fine line indeed between actors and madmen, after all, and it is possible to view the film (and the Peter Weiss play on which it is based) as a commentary on the madness of all art and artists.  The Marquis decides to write and direct a production about the French revolution, and the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, now fifteen years in the past.  The very special actors he and Brook gather are more than game-this is where the hysteria comes in.  As star Glenda Jackson, who plays the assassin Charlotte Corday (or rather she plays the young inmate who plays Corday) recalled later:”It was a shattering experience.  People twitching, slobber running down their chins, everyone screaming from nerves and exhaustion”…She might have added writhing, clawing and literally climbing the walls, as well.  These inmates turned actors add more than a touch of insanity to the already maniacal historical events they are recreating, and the Marquis could have been chosen to direct by Lucifer himself, the way it seems the Prince of Darkness handpicked Peter Brook to direct the film that contains the play: Brook began his career with a stage production of DR. FAUSTUS.  Whatever forces chose him, it was a natural fit, as proven two years after MARAT/SADE when the film and stage director made TELL ME LIES, his angry (some say vacuous) film about America’s involvement in Vietnam. There are moments in MARAT/SADE that could be read as a denunciation of that war and American foreign policy in general, especially at the conclusion when the inmates scream “Take a stand!” echoing radical students the world over.   

The audience for the Marquis’ performance at Charenton is made up of Parisian aristocrats, and this film is the ultimate cacophony of class warfare.  Comparisons are drawn between the inmates and French peasants before the revolution, both in their lack of power and their descent into madness.  The “Reign of Terror” as it came to be known, was championed by Jean-Paul Marat (Ian Richardson) in his writings and there is a parallel here between Marat and the Marquis.  The latter’s works featuring perverse sexuallity and violence were scandalous as well.  Also both men were (and still are)  admired by some and despised as evil by others.   However, they had differing views on the results of the revolution, which was waged to free the French people from oppression by the nobility… but the formerly oppressed masses went crazy and the guillotine became their favorite method of exacting revenge…  Marat believed in his cause until the very end, convinced the terrors would wipe the slate clean and the people could begin anew, in a world without violence and oppression.  The Marquis De Sade believed the reign achieved nothing.  His belief in the inevitability of violence continuing is evidenced in his statement about opposing philosophies: “See how they work and let them fight it out.”  Of course, this is no lament.  He argues that “The animating force of life is destruction.”  We feed on it.  Where do Weiss, Brook and screenwriter Adrian Mitchell stand?  They must in some way identify with Marat  or they would not have included the word “persecution” in their title, and when Marat delivers a wrenching monologue against inequality, Brook has him stare into the camera.  In at least this one instance the film’s director is speaking through Marat, directly to us. “Possibly” Brook seems to be arguing, “there was some merit to the reign of terror”.  A shocking idea, perhaps, but Brook is very probably conflicted. 

 Throughout the film (and the play within a film) the idea that mankind grows more civilized with the passage of time, is soundly mocked: A rod iron fence is all that separates the patients/performers from their wealthy and powerful audience.  Every actor deserves a cast party, and at the play’s conclusion the inmates riot, attacking the elite patrons of the arts.  The last image is of the inmates climbing the fence.  Soon there will be nothing separating “us” from “them”.  Suddenly every credit appears on screen at once.  One by one the names vanish, and Brook seems to be voicing his own view that the civility of each of us could disappear at any moment.

June 2, 2010 Posted by | British film, film directors, Glenda Jackson, Ian Richardson, Patrick Magee, Peter Brook, Peter Weiss | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment