Monday, April 23, 2007

THE HITCHCOCK PROJECT: #2 - The Mountain Eagle... Sort Of

Two movies in, and the project is already in trouble.

1926 was a big year for Alfred Hitchcock. The Pleasure Garden had been a bit of an ordeal. On the advice of his cinematographer, in order to save money, he hadn't declared the motion picture film upon entering Italy. The customs agents weren't fooled; they confiscated the film, and it cost more money to have new film sent from Germany. He had the aforementioned incident with the actress who refused to go into the water while having her period; Hitchcock was so naive, he didn't know what a period was. He didn't care for the actor playing the villain.

Still, he had already proven to be a resourceful director. He convinced a waitress at a hotel to step in for the reluctant swimmer. He saved time and money by shooting extra material on the boat trip to the location. He finished the movie on time, and got pretty strong reviews. All in all, it was a superb first outing. So the studio was more than happy to hand him the reins for another film. The Mountain Eagle.

I haven't watched The Mountain Eagle. Why not? Well... why don't I let my friends at Wikipedia explain.

This is the only Hitchcock directed feature that is considered lost. No prints have been known to survive.

And boy, is it lost. How lost is it? Okay, you see that dog up there, in the movie poster? To this day, nobody knows what role (if any) the dog plays in the film. (He is clearly neither mountain nor eagle.) As far as I know, no one alive today has seen it. Certainly not our biographer, Patrick McGilligan. Nobody at all. And definitely not me.

So, that's just swell. My quest is stopped in its tracks before it has barely begun.


Look, it's not as though I was going to abandon the project. I mean, you can't really hold it against me that a movie doesn't exist anymore. And there's 51 movies to go. Besides, Hitchcock himself hated the movie. But it just killed me that I wouldn't be able to truly complete the entire Hitchcock oeuvre.

Cue Dan Aulier.

Stuck in my progress in the biography, I was doing some outside research, thumbing through a copy of Aulier's Hitchcock's Notebooks, when I made the surprising discovery of his surprising discovery. It seems that, although the film is lost, Hitchcock himself had a complete set of production stills. And Aulier was kind enough to reprint them in his book, along with a brief synopsis. So I couldn't watch The Mountain Eagle. But I could do the next best thing.

The story alone would classify this as a weird film. In the snowy mountains of Kentucky (?), we meet our main character: a nasty fellow named Pettigrew, who evidently hates everyone. Pettigrew's wife dies giving birth to a crippled boy. Pettigrew directs most of his anger at this mountain-dwelling hermit named John, who most people call "Fear o' God".

Cut to twenty-some-odd years later, when the son is now putting the moves on the local schoolmarm named Beatrice (played by movie beauty Nita Naldi, who Hitchcock had to browbeat into dressing down). Pettigrew goes to confront her about this, and ends up making advances on her himself. She turns him down, and the son disappears, probably out of embarrassment.

So now, Pettigrew is really angry. He tries to get Beatrice arrested as, and I turn to Wikipedia again for this description, "a wanton harlot." That's Fear o' God's cue to show up, marry Beatrice, take her back to his cabin in the woods, and get her pregnant. Facing these new developments, Pettigrew takes a new tack: he has Fear o' God arrested for murdering his missing son. Yes, this is a guy who loves to hate.

Fear o' God escapes the law, but not for long. He becomes ill, and Beatrice has to drag him into town for treatment. There Pettigrew is about to claim his victory... until his long-lost son suddenly shows up! Yes, the whole murder thing is out the window, and to top it off, somehow (the how is not made at all clear), Pettigrew is accidentally shot. So, truly a happy ending for everyone.

It would be strange enough that Hitchcock & company shot a film set in Kentucky in the mountains of Germany. (The snow was so heavy at one location that Hitch paid the local fire department to hose it away.) But this plot... it's just beyond bizarre. Why does Pettigrew hate so much? Why does Fear o' God rescue Beatrice? Why is everyone in the movie trying to get up her skirts? What is the heck is going on?

Want to see how weird this movie is? Here's your chance to see more of The Mountain Eagle than almost anyone alive. This was the only still I could find in Google Images, but I think it tells the tale.

Who is that handsome fellow? Who knows? Seems like he must be Fear o' God, but who can be sure? The important thing is, whoever that's supposed to be, it's a character in this film. Someone decided that the Cryptkeeper look was ideal for this movie. To which I can merely say, Wow.

I can't assess Hitchcock on this one, not without seeing the movie. But he didn't like the movie, and you kind of have to defer to his judgment on this. But I do know that, no matter how bad the movie may have been, things weren't all bad. It was around this time that he proposed marriage to Alma. And she said yes. (They were on a ship, and she was sick. Hitchcock said it was the only way he could trick her into it.) So he had a steady career, and now he was a newlywed. Good times.

Oh, and he was about to make his first great movie. That one, Netflix has.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

RED ENVELOPES: The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades

To explain my relative absence over the past two weeks, I will say something that is technically truthful, although is not strictly speaking accurate, and is therefore an outright lie. That's right. I'm through apologizing to you people.

Anyway, my wife was out of town for a week on business. And with her gone, I had the chance to do what so many men have done, throughout the ages, when their spouses go away for a week: watch as many of the movies on the Netflix queue that she doesn't want to see as is humanly possible.

Yes, it was a manic week of DVD screening, as I raced through the decent (Li'l Abner, the Blue Collar Comedy of its day), the bad (Shadowlands, utterly boring), the curious (a Carmelite nun named Sister Wendy touring the Art Institute), and the unsurpassingly weird (Head, starring the Monkees, about which I really should talk in some future posting because it's just so bizarre). But all of that was just prelude for the crown jewel in my week's viewing: They Live, by far one of the greatest terrible movies I have ever seen.

The premise of They Live is simple: Roddy Piper (in his finest acting performance to date) plays a hard-working guy, a real salt-of-the-earth dude, a decent fellow just trying to get by in life, who stumbles across a pair of sunglasses that reveal America's elite to be pillaging aliens who control the government and the media and conspire to keep humans poor and subservient.

Director/pseudonymous screenwriter John Carpenter is in top form here. This is an 80s movie, and Carpenter's fury at Reagan-era politics is palpable. The scene in which Piper first dons the magical sunglasses is really entertaining, as he discovers that yuppies actually have hideous faces, billboards broadcast the messages "OBEY" and "SUBMIT", and -- most amusingly -- money bears the phrase "THIS IS YOUR GOD." Piper has no real ability to convey shock, but Carpenter's vision is so gloriously over-the-top that he doesn't have to.

Of course, it takes an awfully long time to get there, and while we wait, Carpenter works overtime to convince us of how a swell modern-day Jimmy Stewart Piper really is. I think he even pats an adorable moppet on the head. The deck is seriously stacked.

This wouldn't be such a bad thing, except that -- shock of shocks -- Piper turns to violence to help eradicate the alien hordes. You kind of expect that: he's Roddy Piper, they're aliens, the director also made Halloween. Let the carnage begin. Except... well, they still look like humans. When you see Rowdy Roddy mowing down his enemies, they don't look like mortifying creatures from another galaxy. They look like people. And no matter how much you know that your hero is in the right, the outward appearance is that of so much brutality and senseless killing. I had the same problem with The Matrix. It's human nature to be more comfortable with an enemy you can't identify with. Aliens. Nazis. Frat boys. These look like decent human beings, and it leaves a bad taste.

I know Carpenter's trying to have fun with this. He shows us that Piper isn't killing indiscriminately. He frequently spares his fellow human beings the brunt of his wrath. Consider the films signature quote. It is only after killing two aliens dressed as cops (although it sure looks like he's gunning down two cops in the street) and taking their guns that Piper steps into a building to rest and plan his next move. Alas, that building happens to be a bank. So Piper summons all his confidence and says, hilariously, "I have come here to kick ass and chew bubblegum... and I'm all out of bubblegum." Clearly, Roddy Piper is being groomed to be a sort of liberal Schwarzenegger, firing off bullets and one-liners simultaneously. Okay, I can go with that.

Except I can't, because he's clearly more at home in the film's most memorable scene, and the main reason I wanted to see this movie. It comes 55 minutes in, and it involves Piper's elements to expose his only friend, construction worker Keith David, to the scope of the alien plot by having him put on the sunglasses. And the method of persuasion he chooses? He beats him up.

To be fair, they beat each other up. It's the most ludicrous fight scene ever put on celluoid. They trade punches, attempt to maim each other, and all the whole exchange dialogue like this:
PIPER: Put on the glasses.
DAVID: Never.

This goes on -- I kid you not -- for over six whole minutes. Almost as long as "Hey Jude". And it's a 90 minute movie. It's a jaw-dropping movie experience.

Quite frankly, after that, the movie doesn't have much more to offer. There's more carnage, and more rich people acting insufferable and stereotypically evil. Oh, and there's a subplot involving a woman who works for a UHF station that's as riveting as it sounds, and ends up relating to the movie in the most illogical manner possible. And that's kind of the problem with the movie. Carpenter has an interesting idea, but his film's best moments don't really have anything to do with the main story.

And despite all that, I enjoyed the movie immensely. If I admire John Carpenter for anything, it's his willingness to take his political rage and turn it into an action-horror film. Joe Dante got a lot of praise for turning his anger about the Iraq War into a zombie film in Homecoming. Carpenter did at least as much here. They Live is a Grade Z epic. Roddy Piper is the poor man's Dolph Lundgren. And the six-minute fight scene is a trailer trash Rocky. It's a fantastic, remarkable mess. And it doesn't look like any other movie you'll ever see.

Don't believe me? Here. Put on these sunglasses.

Friday, April 13, 2007

THE HITCHCOCK PROJECT: #1 - The Pleasure Garden

ME: Hey, Lauren, could I ask you for a favor?
MY NEIGHBOR ACROSS THE HALL: Sure. What do you need?
ME: Could I borrow your home?

The Wilsons haven't had a videocassette player for almost four years. Frankly, we haven't needed one. Once we went DVD, we never looked back. And other than needing to find a way to transfer some of these old VHS tapes I've got in a steamer trunk, it's worked out just fine. Of course, it figures that when I finally got my hands on a copy of Alfred Hitchcock's directorial debut, it would arrive in tape form. Thanks, Chicago Public Library.

Still, if you can't use your neighbors for things you need, what the heck are they good for? Fortunately, Lauren was game, and I've cat-sat for her enough times that I still have a slight advantage in the getcha-back department. So it was Movie Night at the neighbor's.

The Pleasure Garden is the story of a country girl named Patsy (the lovely Virginia Valli) who comes to the big city to join a chorus line. Of course, she's never set foot on a stage before, but her ability to Charleston on command wows the theater impresario, and a fellow chorus girl named Jill (played by the wonderfully-named Carmelita Geraghty) takes her in as a roommate. So life is pretty good for Patsy.

Naturally, men come along and ruin everything. It seems Jill has a fiancé named Hugh (John Stuart, who looks like Joseph Goebbels). Sadly, Hugh is going off to work on a plantation for the next two years (!?), but Jill has promised to wait for him. Yeah, right. Jill is barely waiting for Hugh to leave, since she's now taking gifts from the producer of the show and soliciting the affections of a German prince and generally acting like a brazen hussy. Poor Patsy can hardly understand what's going on, especially since she's conveniently falling for the affections of Hugh's nasty co-worker, Levett (an appropriately slimy Miles Mander). Is it possible that Levett is also carrying on with some native plantation girl? Oh, this can't go well.

Does this plot sound like a soap opera? It sure is. The Pleasure Garden is pure melodrama. Lauren kept commenting that Patsy was aptly named. True enough: she believes everyone, falls in love out of pure plot contrivance, is just plain nice at every turn, and makes atrocious decisions every step of the way. She's the original insufferable heroine. Most of the characters are straight types, right down to the homosexual costume designer. (I'm not trying to cast aspersions, but it's a silent film, and you could still hear him swish. Gay stereotypes are clearly not a new thing.) In fact, the most likeable character in the movie is Patsy's dog, Cuddles. Believe me, if you ever see this movie -- and I'm reasonably confident that you never will -- remember to trust the dog. He knows all.

Still, I'm not watching this to get a realistic depiction of the lives of chorus girls in the 1920s. No, I'm here for Hitchcock, and I'm happy to report that, despite the thin plot, despite the lack of sound, despite everything, there are touches of the master in place, even at this early stage. The very first scene of the movie, establishing the theater where the chorus girls dance (or, more accurately, do this strange sort of dance-strut-bouncing thing), is an unexpectedly complex shot for 1926. After an amusing setup of a torrent of chorus girls hurrying down a spiral staircase, we get the full stage, shot from way up high, at an angle to capture the adoring audience. I have to think that few directors of the period were attempting anything so advanced. That Hitchcock chose to lead off his first picture with it definitely singles him out as someone looking to get noticed.

I suspect that Hitch had a particular affection for the character of Levett. After all, Levett is completely and utterly amoral. He marries Patsy even though he clearly has no interest in her beyond getting into her bloomers. He goes off to the plantation and immediately becomes a womanizer, a drunk, and unpredictably violent. Also, he has a sinister mustache. Hitchcock also has a special place in his heart for villains, and even though this one has no redeeming quality at all, he gets enough screen time being evil to make you think that Levett is just as beloved.

Levett features in the most Hitchcockian scene of all: our first Hitchcock murder. It's not especially well-filmed. It's an underwater murder, and was evidently very difficult to film. (The actress originally hired refused to go into the water because she was menstruating; medical science has advanced somewhat in 80 years.) But the aftermath, in which the victim's ghost haunts Levett, feels like classic Hitch.

So, Alfred Hitchcock's career is off and rolling. His first's not great. It's hackneyed. It's clichéd. But despite all that, it's not boring. The director has a smart eye, and we're going to see it put to good use.

And if not, I foresee a big future for Cuddles.