Monday, May 10, 2021

Shadow of a Doubt

Alfred Hitchcock’s masterful Shadow of a Doubt may be remembered best for a world-weary sophisticate’s suddenly menacing meditation on “horrible, faded, fat, greedy women” at a family dinner table.

Framed by Franz Lehár’s “Merry Widow Waltz”, the plot is a complicated dance told in pictures between “Uncle Charlie” Oakley (Joseph Cotten), a man-on-the-run compelled to confess his sordid past, and his intuitive niece and namesake Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) who uncovers his dangerous secret.

Hitchcock’s visual narrative technique and montage in this film follow practices he developed making silent films and influences such as the German director F. W. Murnau. Because MP has discussed these topics before, we shall review this film visually with two dozen of its stills.  

Shadow of a Doubt 1943 U.S. (108 minutes) Universal Pictures. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; screenplay by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville from story by Gordon McDonell; director of photography Joseph Valentine; special photography by John P. Fulton (uncredited); editing by Milton Carruth; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; produced by Jack H. Skirball.

In principal roles: Teresa Wright (Charlie Newton), Joseph Cotton (Uncle Charlie Oakley), Henry Travers (Joseph Newton), Patricia Collinge (Emma Newton), Hume Cronyn (Herbie Hawkins), Ann Newton (Edna May Wonacott), Roger Newton (Charles Bates), Macdonald Carey (Jack Graham) and Wallace Ford (Fred Saunders), Clarence Muse (Pullman porter).

Friday, September 18, 2020

Pool of London

It is nearly as difficult now to imagine commercial cargo ships docking in central London as it is to think anything unusual about a black West Indian man dating a blonde London local.
This was not the case in 1950 when Basil Dearden filmed Pool of London. Jack Whittingham and John Eldridge’s original story blends race with the love interests of a ship’s crew at a London port call, East End wide boys, a dodgy ‘Gentleman Acrobat’, and illicit diamond trafficking to make a taut crime thriller. Their tight script and variety of character actors, locations, and shooting make it cinematic gem.
Johnny Lambert (Earl Cameron in his first screen role) is a popular and easy-going Jamaican seaman on the SS Dunbar, a cargo ship that makes a regular run between Rotterdam and London. Johnny often stays aboard ship in port to avoid trouble and save money for his education. Dan McDonald (Bonar Colleano) is Johnny’s best friend, an American with big ideas and a girl in every port. Dan occasionally gives Johnny small things to take ashore for him, such as a couple packs of cigarettes. Everyone knows Johnny is on the up-and-up. Once ashore, Johnny returns to Dan what he brought without questions and refuses to take Dan’s ‘tip’.
While idling in a music hall lobby on shore leave as he waits for Dan to ‘meet people’ inside, Johnny meets the ticket-taker Pat (Susan Shaw). Pat is a friendly blonde; her easy chemistry with Johnny leads to several outings. Johnny seems more conscious of being black among whites than his white crewmates and Londoners appear to be with him in their company. But there are several exceptions, the key one of which may include a 1951 British cinema audience seeing a mixed-raced couple in a British film for the first time.
As Johnny chats up Pat, Dan mixes it up with wide boys in a scheme to make a few fast quid. He passes the two packets of cigarettes that Johnny brought off the boat for him to a pin-striped spiv named Mike (Christopher Hewett). Dan knows the packets contain something besides cigarettes; he also knows better than to ask what. Mike, Alf the safecracker (Alfie Bass), and Charlie Vernon the Gentleman Acrobat (Max Adrian), propose a bigger deal.
Dan cannot help himself from bragging to his jealous, gimlet-eyed Maisie (Moira Lister) that he is onto something big. When Johnny sees the possibility of a relationship with an English girl, he rethinks his plan to leave the ship for good and return home to Jamaica for an education. And then things start to go wrong. On Sunday morning the wide boys crack a safe in an office near the Bank of England in a brief laconic sequence that prefigures the heist in Rififi (1955). The thieves flee under pursuit with a take close to a million in present-day US dollars and the denouement unfolds.
Racism is an issue here, but apart from several ‘we don’t like your type’ encounters with strangers, Johnny seems to experience it more by his own presumption than in anyone’s behavior. He is the only black person in the film. He has a pleasant, open face and appears to be well-liked on his ship. He agrees with Pat that London can be forbidding if you do not know anyone, but doors open when you meet people. Johnny takes it hard when he goes to meet Pat at a dancehall and realizes her evening plan is to get together in a group with white friends; but Pat clearly likes him and the film shows her socializing among a set of young working people like herself.
The Pool of the title is a geographical term for London’s natural harbor on the Thames. Shot on location, Dearden and his cinematographer Gordon Dines capture a documentary record of a part of London now past, to include round-cornered, double-decker London trams, the devastation left by wartime German bombing, and sail barges on the Thames.
The film’s opening credits show the ship approach the Pool from the lower Thames, pass through Tower Bridge, and then berth across the river from the Tower of London; the story closes as the ship leaves its berth and follows the tide through Tower Bridge headed back to Rotterdam.In use from the city’s earliest days, the Pool encompasses roughly three miles of the river, from London Bridge to Cuckold’s Point/Lime Kiln Creek.
By the twentieth century, it shared trade with east London’s complex of dock areas until the 1960s. When container shipping became the industry standard, deep ocean ports and higher bridge clearances were required and much of what had been the world's largest port was redeveloped for upscale residential and commercial purposes.
Pool of London
1951 U.K. (85 minutes) Ealing Studios. Directed by Basil Dearden; original screenplay by Jack Whittingham and John Eldridge; director of photography Gordon Dines; editing by Peter Tanner; music by John Addison; produced by Michael Balcon.

Friday, August 14, 2020

The Man on the Ledge

Henry Hathaway’s Fourteen Hours, a black-and-white bouquet of surprises from the tabloid era, is a compelling ensemble piece filled with intriguing details and future stars.

The narrative centers on whether Robert Cosic/k (Richard Basehart), a young man bedeviled by conflicted feelings about his divorced parents and his former fiancée, can be talked inside from a 15th-floor Manhattan hotel ledge from which he threatens to jump. Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini reportedly cast Basehart in La Strada (1954) because he was impressed by his work in Fourteen Hours. Fellini also cast Basehart in Il Bidone (1955).

The bold visual sensibility compares to that of New York tabloid photographer Weegee [Arthur Fellig]. And just as Cosic is in every sense near and yet so far away, each actor’s body language emphasizes the distance to the ground no less than the camera. The viewer never loses a visceral sense of how far down the street is from Cosic and his would-be rescuers nor of the relief that people feel to get both feet back on solid ground.

There is no movie music to give emotional cues. The only music comes with the opening credits and at the close. The film’s background sounds are from the streets of New York. Human foibles with unintended consequences give authenticity to Cosic’s 14 hours on the ledge.

The main dialogue is between Cosic and Patrolman Charles Dunnigan (Paul Douglas) who spotted Cosic on the ledge while walking his morning traffic beat. Dunnigan is solidly-grounded, an all-American, liver-and-bacon, working-class mensch from Bayside, Queens. His calm presence makes him the only person Cosic trusts. Their dialogue forms the core of an ensemble of capable actors, no less the City of New York watching the spectacle from the streets below and surrounding office buildings.

Grace Kelly appears in her first film as Louise Ann Fuller, watching the man on the ledge from the windows of a law office where she is meeting with her husband (James Warren) and their lawyers to finalize the terms of their divorce. At street level, a young Ozzie Davis is one of five wry cabdrivers with a pool over when the man will jump. John Cassavetes and Brian Keith have uncredited background roles: Keith appears at a television monitor; Cassavetes may be operating a large television camera.

The New York Police Department works its mission in spite of city government and its own bureaucracy. Deputy Police Chief Moksar (Howard da Silva), in charge of emergency services, directs the rescue operation from Cosic’s hotel room through a pecking-order chain-of-command, receiving his orders from above by telephone. His rolling eyes leaven the dramatic tension: he is used to being in charge, but loyal aides need direction and the best ideas often come from flatfeet.

Called in to help talk their son from the ledge, Cosic’s long-divorced parents, Christine Hill Cosic (Agnes Moorehead) and Paul E. Cosic (Robert Keith, Brian Keith’s actual father), play out the toxic family dynamic in the hotel room within their son’s hearing and before police officials and psychiatrists. Police also bring in Cosic’s former fiancée Virginia Foster (Barbara Bel Geddes) to try to assist their effort. At the same time, new love buds when boy meets girl in the crowd on the street: Ruth (Debra Paget) and Danny Klempner (Jeffrey Hunter).

Thus we have a divorced couple with a son confused about his parents and his own matrimonial future, possibly his sexuality; a couple whose lawyers are negotiating a divorce; a grounded, happily-married, middle-aged Everyman looking forward to his wife Helen’s (Ann Morrison) cooking; and a young couple who meet on the street below.   

The story was inspired by reporting by Joel Sayre titled “This Is New York: The Man on the Ledge,” published in The New Yorker on 16 April 1949. Sayre wrote about the suicide of 26-year-old John W. Warde. On 26 July 1938, Warde jumped 17 floors to his death from a ledge of Hotel Gotham, a 23-story Beaux Arts hotel at 700 Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. This hotel is now The Peninsula New York.

The film’s Hotel Rodney was The Guaranty Trust Co. bank building on Broadway in lower Manhattan, redressed as a hotel. From the ledge, viewers can see the Woolworth Building to the north and Trinity Church closer and to the south. The bank, demolished in 1967, was replaced by the 52-story Midland Marine Building at 140 Broadway, notable for Isamu Noguchi’s “Red Cube” in its plaza.

The young man’s name is spelled “Cosick” on a police bulletin. But Moksar spells it out “C-o-s-i-c” and adds, “Whatever kind of name that is.” It likely is an Americanized version of the Croatian or Serbian Ćosić [Tsosits].

“So what is it? Advertising?”—“Could be.”—“It could.”
Fourteen Hours 1951 U.S.; Twentieth Century-Fox (92 minutes). Directed by Henry Hathaway; screenplay by John Paxton, based on a story by Joel Sayre; cinematography by Joseph MacDonald; editing by Dorothy Spencer; produced by Sol C. Siegel.