Tuesday, May 29, 2007

THE HITCHCOCK PROJECT: #3 - The Lodger

Weissman: It's a detective story... everyone's a suspect. You know, that sort of thing.
Constance: How horrid. And who turns out to have done it?
Weissman: Oh, I couldn't tell you that. It would spoil it for you.
Constance: Oh, but none of us will see it.
- Gosford Park
screenplay by Julian Fellowes



You are wondering, perhaps, what the heck happened to Alfred.

The answer, of course, is that I happened, and the result was none too good for either of us. You see, I'm just coming off an exciting month-long project to convert a steamer trunk full of videocassettes into DVDs. For those who are interested, the project was mostly successful; I'm down to a banker's box of videocassettes, and very soon, we should have regained several cubic feet of closet space. On the minus side, however, is that this took up a significant portion of my free time, and made me extremely uninterested in watching more movies with what little time I had. My Netflix friends will have noted that I've had Hard Boiled an awfully long time.

But now that this particular endeavor has shuttered for the summer, I find that there's a portly Englishman who has been waiting upon me patiently. Best not to keep him waiting, then. Especially when he's turned out the first film that critics are willing to label "a masterpiece": The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog.

I suppose another thing that might have kept me from jumping right into this film was the lousy quality of the print Netflix had available. The Lodger is actually an extra feature on the DVD of a later Hitchcock film, Sabotage (which we'll get to in it's time). As the disc's ugly stepchild, The Lodger clearly didn't get a lot of love from Laserlight or Vintage Films. The print skips, brightness changes wildly from shot to shot, titles vary so much that it's impossible to tell which ones comes from the original and which ones are more recent substitutes, and most criminally, the opening credits are so butchered that Hitchcock's own credit is cut off before it ever gets the chance to appear. I know it's an 80-year old movie, but this is the best we could do? I've got a project in mind for the film archivists out there.

Get past that, and we're in pretty familiar territory. A serial killer called "The Avenger" is murdering the curly-haired blonde women of London, and a creepy houseguest may be the culprit – or he might just be wrongfully accused. It even has the first Hitchcock MacGuffin, in the form of the hunt for The Avenger. It's almost like a parody of a typical Hitchcock plot. Although if you think about it, for Hitchcock to have found so many variations on this basic story over his career, it makes sense that he would start right at the source.

Hitchcock gets a lot of mileage out of his star. The mysterious tenant is played by Ivor Novello, who was a popular songwriter (Jeremy Northam plays him as the only real-life character in the abovementioned Gosford Park) and actually something of a heartthrob of the era (despite being homosexual; marketing gay men as sex symbols has always been the way of the entertainment industry). According to our old friend Patrick McGilligan, Hitchcock was a little concerned about the casting
of Novello, as the star was renowned for striking over-the-top romantic poses in his stage performances. Whatever his method, Hitchcock clearly found a solution. From the moment he first walks through the door, the mood is not romantic enchantment but extreme unease. Deathly pale, nervous, barely able to carry on a conversation, Novello's Lodger is a remarkable creation, especially knowing that an audience would completely assume he was the hero.

Whether it's Novello's performance or Hitchcock's directing, the character of the Lodger certainly comes out better than his prospective love interest, Daisy, who -- in another ahead-of-its-time gesture -- is played by a woman calling herself June. June doesn't do much in the way of acting. She laughs a lot. I mean a lot. Like a strangely uncomfortable scene wherein her father has fallen off a chair and she continues to laugh and laugh. Mmm, awkward. Every now and then, she's called upon to look vaguely uncertain. That's usually just a segue to a laugh, though. I wasn't a big fan of June's.

I wonder if audiences of the day identified more with Joe, the useless cop portrayed by Malcolm Keen. Quite frankly, Clair and I found him at least as creepy as Novello. With irises so pale as to make his eyes look hollow, a hilariously inept sense of romance (he slaps a pair of handcuffs on Daisy as an expression of interest), and a terrible crime-solving technique, he's just as unsettling as the guy being set up as the potential villain. In a way, the movie puts us in an unusual position from the get-go, with two possible bad guys and a heroine with no range. With no one to necessarily like, this is not a recipe for a great thriller.

This is where Hitchcock really asserts himself. With no vested interest in any of our leads, he still builds the suspense. It's never daytime in The Lodger's London. The populace is following news of the murders with rabid interest. Someone we suspect is actually innocent. Hitch knows how to play to the crowd. Sometimes I got bored during the movie, but I never lost interest in the outcome.

Did I say bored? Yeah, that's the real problem. Perhaps one of the greatest tricks as a viewer today is to get into the mindset of a viewer back then. Because even to an open-minded fellow like myself, The Lodger moves at a positively glacial pace.
There's very little dialogue (and for a silent film, that's saying something) and almost no action, so we're left with a great many static shots of people looking, waiting, building up a sense of importance that doesn't always pay off.

This is what kind of makes me think I enjoyed The Pleasure Garden a little bit more. This story is less melodramatic. The acting -- June aside -- is better. But The Lodger doesn't move. When the climactic chase scene finally comes, it ought to be the culmination. Instead, it's a relief.

Still, he's learning. Hitchcock told the famed director and journalist Fran├žois Truffaut that he considered The Lodger to be his first movie. If so, it's a very assured debut. And it bodes well for things to come.

Of course, I don't want to give anything away.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Just a Quick Note From the Old Stomping Grounds...

Every now and then, one of my old You Don't Know Jack questions pops up. I can't help but get a sweet, wistful feeling whenever that happens. Most recently, one of my Jack Attacks was dusted off, updated to include the surviving spawn of Anna Nicole Smith, and slotted to close out the weekly game.

What makes me mention this is that the game has a comment section. And here's some of the warm reception that greeted my work:

"Ok.. the Jack Attack was just frigging cruel."

"I was doing pretty good until the Attack. *sigh*"

"Damn that Jack Attack."

"Wow, I can't believe how badly I sucked on that. It was truly impressive. I've never done that badly on a Jack Attack EVER, home or web versions."

"ZERO on the Jack Attack. ZERO!"

"This is the first time I haven't aced the Jack Attack... seriously... and I've never felt so happy."

"I voluntarily ignored the Jack Attack... I don't give a damn about celebrity gossip."

"I didn't even bother to touch the keyboard during the Jack Attack."

"That Jack Attack was pretty lame"

"I didn't even touch the keyboard during the Jack Attack. Just sat back and watched."

"Worst Jack Attack ever . . ."


For some reason, I'm simply overwhelmed with pride.

Friday, May 04, 2007

THE DAMNED HUMAN RACE: When She Says "Fight", She Really Means It

So I was strolling through the Sports Illustrated website, looking for more overwrought commentary about the Mavericks' miserable collapse at the hands of the Warriors, when I stumbled across this unusual link title:

Army's Meredith is cheerleader of week

Okay, you have my attention. I don't think I've ever seen the words "Army" and "cheerleader" in the same sentence, or at least not in the traditional cheerleading sense. But sure enough, the SI folks took time out to showcase Meredith Walton, cheerleader for the United States Military Academy.



Now we'll set aside the primary issue of whether or not I should be looking at pictures of cheerleaders 14 years younger than I am (or what the heck Sports Illustrated is doing plastering pictures of college cheerleaders all over its website). What really threw me for a loop is the fact that, on game days, she looks like this:



I mean, it makes sense. She's not just a senior. She's a senior at West Point. She's a cadet. So when the game's over, she hangs up the sweater and the tiny skirt and dons her country's uniform. Naturally.

This bugged me a lot, and I spent some time trying to figure out why. And I eventually came down to three faults of my own: arrogance, a lack of imagination, and fear.

I've always been of two minds about cheerleaders: sure, they're pretty. But they're also kind of dumb and pointless. Consider: they dress in uniform, they're relentlessly cheery no matter the situation, and they encourage everyone to think alike and act as a mob. (Actually, this explains a lot about the cheerleader we sent to Washington.) In short, I don't trust them, because I don't think they're capable of thinking for themselves, and they don't want anyone else to, either.

Arrogant, yes? Meredith seems to think so. Apparently, my attitude that bugs her, given her answer to the question, "What's a popular misconception about cheerleaders?"

That we are all dumb and peppy all of the time. I think I am pretty smart, and I have my frustrated, angry moments, too.


I hope she's pretty smart. She's studying to be an intelligence officer, which I realize doesn't merit the kind of respect it used to. But, I mean, the girl got into West Point. Sure, you can have connections, but you don't make it very long in a military academy without being a pretty smart cookie. So she's messing with my stereotypical disdain for cheerleaders. Except for being cute.

There's also the fear that I'm just a sexist pig. Do I have a problem with a pretty girl being in the military? I wouldn't have thought so. I think I'm a fairly pro-equality guy. Heck, I have a standing election policy of "When In Doubt, Vote for Women and Minorities." (Hillary is sorely testing this method.) So why should it bother me that an attractive woman would also want to serve in the military? I think it might be a kind of reverse sexism. Women have only been allowed in to West Point since 1976. It feels like a step backward to spend that opportunity leading cheers. Does MIT have cheerleaders? Why does the Army?

Therein lies my lack of imagination. Nowhere is it written that increased opportunities for women have to have some corresponding decrease in girliness. So Meredith wants to be in the Army. She also likes to wear a short skirt and cheer on the football team. She's an American; she wants it all. Who am I to say she shouldn't have it? She can cheer for her country, and she can die for it.

Ah, I think we've found it. Our armed forces are stretched as thin as can be. We've lost more American soldiers in Iraq than we lost civilians on September 11. The country is exhausted from four years of war, yet fiercely determined to support its troops and avoid the shameful treatment afforded veterans of Vietnam. And here, symbolizing our weakened-yet-resolute Army, is Meredith Walton. A future second lieutenant with pom-poms.

My third flaw: fear. Meredith Walton now stands as the face of the war for me. A sweet young all-American girl who might get shipped off to face death in a couple years, because we'll probably still be stuck in this mess by then. And I don't want her to die. She's a cheerleader, for pete's sake. Cheerleaders don't die in the desert. And frankly, neither should anyone else.

I definitely won't look at Sports Illustrated's Cheerleader of the Week again.